Willis Kimbel

Willis Kimbel


When I met Willis Kimbel, the first thing I noticed was how much shit he had in his car. The trunk of his white Civic was stuffed haphazardly with at least five skateboards, multiple sets of wheels ranging from 53mm to 75mm, fishing rods, a blow torch, a sleeping bag, gun casings and a hammock. I believe you can judge someone by what they choose to carry and this trunk told me one thing: this guy is a doer. As I soon learned, Willis was up for anything, from shaping his own boards to finding pristine camping spots, the excitement driven by a semi-fanatical need to see it all and do it different. In recent years, skateboarding has been hyper-focused on what trick hasn’t been done yet, but Willis focuses more on everlasting projects: what he hasn’t ridden yet, what places haven’t been checked out—those thoughts that have taken us farther down the sidewalk day by day. This drive to uncover all that the world has to offer has led him into the dirtiest parts of California in search of backyard gems, across the Pacific, and most recently to Europe, where, upon writing this, I have received word that his return ticket has been cancelled. Torn to shreds, actually. There was just too much left to see. Our best wishes from the Northwest, Willy. Ramble on, as you wanted. The couch will always be open when you knock on my door next. – Introduction by ALEX FOY

I figured we’d start with how you came to Portland and move out from there.
Portland is the center of the universe.

How did you come to find yourself in Portland?
Tom Inouye got me a job at Wendell’s when I was 15 and, when I was 18, I ran away from D.C. and drove a Honda Civic out to Portland to work at Windell’s and skate all the Dreamland parks and all the Grindline parks.

It is funny because a lot of people think rambling is a new thing for you, but you have rambled for your entire life. You’ve lived in the Caribbean, Italy, Portland, and driven across the country. Has that been a pretty comfortable state for you?
It has. I feel more at home when I’m lost than when I’m stuck in a routine. I do really poorly in routine world. Not necessarily poorly, I just don’t enjoy it as much.

Portland is a city of routine too, with a possibility of good and bad. Talk about Tom Inouye.
Tom Inouye is one my biggest influences. He and my dad were skate buddies. He gave me my first free skateboard. It was a Deathbox board, his shape. We skated Baldy together.

Sam Hitz rode for Deathbox, right?
He might have. Tom Remillard got on and I got kicked off. [Laughs] Because I was just some kid in Maryland skating a ramp in a soybean field.

Tom was just one human pad jumping off gaps.
Oh yeah, old thermal. [laughs] Tom Inouye was my Babe Ruth.

When you came to Windell’s as a fifteen-year-old, what was it like it up there?
There were a lot of wooden ramps. My job was to screw in the loose screws and wash dishes. Silas Baxter-Neal and Tim Eberly were my bosses. I was just some snotty kid doing fly-outs.

When you were 18, you slowly made your way closer to Portland. Your first spot was in Gresham, on the outskirts of the city, right?
Yep. Oh, I paid my Gresham dues. 202nd, blood.

There’s a skatepark out there that nobody really skates, right?
Yeah. It’s just a pyramid pretty much. It’s sick. I went to Burnside and, when they built Pier Park in 2006, I started going there. I had been going to Burnside since 2003, but I didn’t really have the opportunity too often. Once I realized how important it was to me, I decided to really live in Portland. Then when I was 20, I moved into Union Arms, one block away from the bridge, and that’s when I got to bleed all over it. It became home, even though there’s no such thing as home.

What drew you in about Burnside?
The coping in the deep bowl and the freedom. The protection against kooks. And Mark Scott.

Do you have a good Mark Scott story?
[laughs] Yeah. Do you want to hear it?

Yeah. Let’s hear it.
This one time when Mark was done building the Walla Walla Park, we went out to the skatepark right when it opened and stayed at the house that he was living in at the time. That night he wanted to make us dinner and ended up making us Hamburger Helper. I’ve never seen a worse ratio of meat to noodles; it was like four parts beef, one-part noodles. So the whole crew was picking over the noodles like seagulls. So, long story short and several beers later, the laptops and speakers in the area were covered with Hamburger Helper.

I think Jeremy Tuffli has a clip of Mark, and I think he is trying to pie somebody with the Hamburger Helper, but the dish ends up flying across the house and pinging our friend Andy really good.
Yep. We were dancing.

I remember that day we rode up to the park for the opening ceremony. You and Mark had the idea to play “Flight of the Valkyries” full blast, which is a great demo song.
It was snowing too.

Yep, and we were playing this song through Mark’s two huge amps.
I love that Mark’s amps are so big and loud that, if you put your beers on top of them, the vibration will knock them over.

I think you can fit two 24-packs in each of his speakers.
Sounds about right.

Let’s talk about D.I.Y. skateboarding. Obviously, Burnside has been there since the beginning and we owe everything to that, but it has snowballed into people across the world building what they want, getting what they can get. You were out in Finland, and you were telling me about a spot you checked out there.

Does that mean anything?
It means bitchin ass D.I.Y. spot. It is in Helsinki, you could say. It was a couple train stops over from where I was staying. I walked up and the crew was listening to Grindline the Band and shoveling.

You were like, “I know these guys.”
Instantly, I was like, “My brothas.” Stoked to have gone there and been exposed to that and met those people. They all skate well and none of them are kooks. Finland is really open to supporting the skate community. The skate shop and the city help pay for concrete. It is rad and I am going back there to help out. It reminds me of the feeling of Burnside, just the roughness and the freedom. They’ve got a bunch of cool stuff there; it is pretty gnarly though. The texture of the concrete and coping is much more like Washington Street. It’s so much gnarlier though. One of the rules is there are no kids allowed.

Well, that’s sick. It is one thing when you go out there and see a guy on skateboard because you know that dude is in, but when you see a guy doing a D.I.Y. project you know that’s a program you want to be in on, even if you can’t say one word to him.
I want to go out there and donate whatever I can.

It’s funny when we were in Copenhagen and Rune was explaining how the Hullet bowl came to be. It was a very similar story to that of Burnside or any other DIY project.
I love it. It is my favorite part of skating, because all those dudes want is to just do their own thing. That’s what skating is all about; it’s not about what everyone else is doing.

What is skateboarding about to you? Today, skateboarding seems to be a race of who can do it longest, fastest, and highest, but that doesn’t seem to be your approach.
Yeah. That’s not my approach at all. My approach to skateboarding is asking myself “If I was going to die tomorrow, how would I like to skateboard?” You don’t have to kill yourself. You have to have fun. A lot of people have fun, but I do see some people who only feel good about skateboarding when they are rewarded. Sometimes you just have to bomb a hill by yourself and get that scared feeling and realize how lucky you are to get to feel that. That’s how I look at it. I am never going to stop. I am just going to keep on skateboarding a lot.

There’s a lot of concrete out there. What’s some concrete that you haven’t ridden that you want to check out?
I have never been to South America. I want to skate Pedro Barros’ bowl and all of Brazil. I want to skate more of Spain and check out Berlin.

While you’re in the continental United States, your house is your truck. I am sure you find camping spots and skate spots all over the place.
Tons of camping spots.

I remember the first mission in the truck when you had all of your stuff in it and the vehicle was looking very heavy.
And wobbly.

Fast-forward four months to when you were in San Diego and you had a sort of sideways cabinet built in to the bed for all your gear.
Yeah, the platform. I figured some stuff out. I went to west Oakland and realized how vulnerable I was. I don’t sleep in the truck that much because I feel like, if someone really wanted to rob me, they could just hold the door shut and I would be stuck in the back. When I was in Oakland, I was sleeping under the truck and saw some dudes come up to the truck, but all I could see was their boots. They were looking in the truck trying to see if there was anything in it. Then I realized how if I lost anything that I had on me while I was on the road how screwed I was, so I started taking precautions and living lighter. You know having a pistol on me at all times, even while I was skating. [laughs]

Yeah. Living on the road adds a lot of freedom to your life, but you’re also taking a huge risk because everything important to you is in one place. Who makes camping and rambling possible?
Next Adventure. It’s a camping store in Portland, Oregon. They are actually responsible for me being able to become nomadic. Omar Hassan gave me the truck and Next Adventure gave me my home because I spend most of my time camping. Hotels, camping, and a little couch surfing. Camping is what I enjoy the most. Next Adventure has made the impossible possible. They also make me feel confident and inspired to do some spontaneous, random stuff that I never would have felt able to do alone.

Going back to Burnside, how has that place changed for you? From the early 2000s to now, that southeast industrial area had been continuously changed and developed to create a new district. Do you have any hopes and concerns for Burnside’s future in a developing area?
I don’t know what it was like in the early, gnarly days, but when I got there, the ratio of frontside grinds and airs to beers consumed was off balance. There were also a lot of gnarly locals who would kick out the kooks, but there were also people who wanted to skate and the locals would freak them out too. What I am noticing nowadays is the OG crew is not as gnarly and protective. There are guys down there, who I have never seen, who act like they are a regulating, self-entitled local because they’ve slept under the bridge for the last month; but they’ll move on. Burnside today is being skated everyday and people are showing up who want to skate it more than they want to do heroin. When I lived in Union Arms, I remember it being a little darker. Now, since they’re building a 24-story building right in our parking lot, people are starting to realize what they’ve got. Just on this little trip, I’ve noticed people skating. People who wouldn’t have hung out a week ago are ripping the bridge together because they know change is coming. As long as there are people who are skating the park, everything should be fine.

Since were on the subject of D.I.Y. projects and having a cool idea and committing to it, let’s talk about Bassturd. What is it for those who are unaware?
Bassturd is a group of stinky, pool skating, fishing dudes who all go on trips where the main priority is to fish and skate. Brooks Fritz, who use to shoot photos for Concussion and is a family man who lives in Oceanside, runs the company. The people in Japan like our products. Notable ambassaturds include Rie Clancy and Chris Troy both who are a savage fisherman and Shaun Ross, a Ferrari without brakes on a skateboard.

You visited Japan last year with Bassturd, right?
Yeah, it was one of the raddest trips I have been on. I was with the gnarliest rippers and we didn’t catch a single fish, which was hilarious. We traveled all the way across the pond to go fishing and didn’t catch anything. It was awesome. Bassturd is an international crew of stinky fishermen who are going to get it whether you watch or not.

In the same realm of D.I.Y. skate projects and Bassturd, is our own Shrunken Head on 6th and Morrison in Portland, Oregon. What role has the shop played in your life?
Shrunken Head is the reason I get to do what I am doing on a skateboard. They were the first people to show me full support and invite me on trips. They don’t have one thing in that shop that isn’t legit. There’s no bullshit. It’s what you need and all the cool stuff. None of that Zumiez shit and that vibe. They’ve got a sick team. I would not be able to travel as much as I do if it wasn’t for Shrunken Head and Jivaro wheels, which the shop owned at one point. Jivaro was the first time I was invited to get in a van and go on a faraway trip, which led me to think, “Hey, maybe I am not going to work at Pizza Hut and drink every night and not be stoked like everyone else, and instead skate my ass off and pray I can keep doing it.”

You rode for Jivaro for a long time and you designed a wheel for them, right?
When I did it, Justin gave me some samples and I kind of had an idea of what I wanted. Then I would ride the same exact board with the same trucks, the same bearings and the same wheels at three different places. I would go to Pier Park. I would go to Burnside and I would zoobomb with each set of wheels. It worked pretty well. At the end, I would look at all the wheels and see which ones lasted the longest. I had a graphic as well, it was a topless savage lady and there are all these people in the bushes with knives in their mouths waiting to kill her. We called it La Leche.

Let’s talk about dudes who are killing it. Who do see out there that stokes you out?
Cody Lockwood. Cody is one of the purest I’ve seen right now. He’s one of the most talented and understands skateboarding more than anyone could understand it. He builds skateparks for Mark Scott and he travels. He’s not afraid to just do what it takes to skateboard all the time and make rad skating happen. He’s got good energy and he’s good. He rips harder than you can everyday of the week. He’s going to build your skatepark better than you can build it and then skate it better then you can forever; and he’s missing fingers. I’ve got a better way to put it. When Cody Lockwood was younger, he tried to kickstart a dirt bike while it was in first gear and it jumped forward, cutting his fingers off. Later that month, he blew his face off with fireworks. When that happened, it created this gnarly, savage dude who could create skateparks and skate them better then anyone.

[Laughs] Created like a Greek myth.
Exactly. Cody is the best. Daniel Malkovich, “Malky” is the best—San Diego kid, OJ wheels kid. He is insane. So well rounded, surfs like a savage and rips Washington Street, kinked rails, and backside 180s. Ronnie Sandoval is probably my favorite to watch right now. He’s a good dude. He’s holding it down for San Pedro.

I heard Ronnie Sandoval has got a trick called the Jolly Mamba.
A frontside invert from hell.

Speaking of trick names, what the hell is a butter cutter?
A butter cutter is Darren Navarrette’s backside crailslide revert. There is a good clip of it in Born Dead. He does it over a channel and you see why it’s called a butter cutter. It’s all slicing on through there.

When you were out in Finland, you skated a ramp on the water. How was that? Did it move with the current or did it bob up and down like a boat?
The guys who built it, Jako and Roope, built pretty much a dock with air containers under it and then they put the ramp on top of that and the sauna on top of the ramp. There were times when it would rock, but I was really impressed by how solid the construction was. I mean at first it was a little strange. They weren’t sure it was going to work, but once you got used to it, it was pretty shocking how well it worked.

It was elaborate too. There was a roll over, a spine.
It was so fun too. It was more fun then it looked. I am so grateful to have done that and appreciate everyone who made it happen.

It must have been crazy skating up there too, because when you’re that far north it stays light all day.
Yeah, the sun never goes down. It’s great though because I get good mileage. I can have a 20-hour day and then I go to sleep for six hours and I am fine.

When you’re psyched, you don’t think about it.
When you have the opportunity to be doing something all day and be inspired and motivated, you don’t have to go to bed just because it’s getting dark. You just go until your body says no. When it says no, you rest and you actually sleep because you’re tired. In Finland, during the summer, you get to do shit all day, and I love doing shit.

Speaking of 20-hour days, some of the photos for this interview you shot at night.
Yeah. When I came through Portland, Elias Parise said “Do you want to do this interview for Juice?” I said, “Do you have lights?” He said, “Right,” So we would kick it doing fun stuff all day and then when the sun went down, we would light shit up. It was calm and peaceful and nobody was around. We didn’t get busted and it was a lot cooler in temperature. That’s why some of the photos are at nighttime. It was really rad because we would go out and do it and it would all work out swimmingly. By the time we were done with our day, everyone else was either completely hammered or asleep.

In these photos, your wheel size varies from 54 to 75mm. What factors go through your head when you decide what type and size of wheel to ride?
Normally, I roll with bigger wheels when the terrain is impossible to skate without them. It lifts the wet blanket that roughness puts over us. Also, my first board was my dad’s old board. It had huge wheels on it and I skated that board for six years: no concave, no front pivot cup. That’s what a skateboard meant to me, and still does mean to me. Now when I ride a soft wheel set up, it’s not nostalgic or anything. It just works and feels good. It’s so funny to me that people think my set ups are so outlandish. People spend all this time skateboarding and riding on a skateboard that they never modify, but a skateboard is supposed to be ridden on everything you possibly can. If you ride a different board, you are going to skate different and enjoy a different part of skateboarding. If you ride bikes, there is more than one type of bike. If you race cars, there is more than one type of car: sprint car to Formula One. For some reason, skateboarders are stuck in this ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mindset’ of “I know what I like. I ride this size board, these shoes…” I just think, “Yeah, right, dude, take that exact board to this spot and you can’t skate.”

Well said. It’s obligatory last words time, but first, favorite beer?
Your beer and big ones. Thank you Lee, Cran-man, Rhino, everyone at NHS, Casper, Scuba, Ryan at Nike, everyone at Next Adventure, everyone at Shrunken Head, everyone at Leatherman, everyone at Dakine, everyone at Revd, Scott Blum, Elias Parise, Foy, Andrew Adams, Meshaud, Omar Hassan, the Bassturds, all my Creature brothers, Dan Drehobl, Dad, Mom, Claire, and to end: I want to grind a mile.


Willis Kimbel

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