Portrait: Chris Johnson.
Quitting anything is pretty weird. I don't believe you can stop being a skateboarder.
Once you've had a true taste, it's impossible to break the need. Skateboarding is highly addictive, and possibly the best drug that there is. But sometimes it's just not enough. Repeated injuries, sh*tty weather, ebbing scenes, and a waning level of enthusiasm can slowly lead you in to other avenues of tastes or needs. Other addictions.
It hurts to even type this, but it was a grim reality when James went AWOL. I dreaded getting the call that it was some serious prison time, or even worse, time for a funeral. ‘Too much, too young’ is something that skateboarding has always wrestled with. Here we have a classic case of just that.
We had our first roll together in years towards the end of 2019, and it was one of the happiest days of my life. I’ve broken a few ribs and my hip doesn't like me much anymore, but to roll with James again, it was truly worth it. Don't call it a comeback; he was just having a little breather. Skateboarding missed you, brother.
- Bob Sanderson
Tackling a construction site disaster head on, Stafford. Photo: Rob Whiston.
Interview by Ben Powell and Ryan Gray
Ben: Is that an ‘eight’ I can see?
Yeah. It’s the little one’s birthday tomorrow; we’ve just had some balloons delivered. I was probably about eight, wasn’t I Ben, when I first met you?
B: I think it was ‘97.
So I’d have been 11.
B: You were already on the ramps with the big lads at 11; that’s pretty impressive.
Well I started skating around the age of eight or nine. I’ve got a brother who’s five years older, and he had a board. I started using his board, and in the end I obviously got the bug for it.
B: Back then, that was young to start skating. Maybe not now; now you’d probably have someone kicking you down a double set and telling you that you’re going to get in the Olympics.
Yeah, definitely (laughing).
Ryan: Did you know that skating was ‘a thing’, or was it just that your brother had a toy and you were messing about in front of the house?
I just remember falling in love with it straight away, then probably a year later, my dad must have looked in the Yellow Pages and found Ideal (laughs). It was on Corporation Street in Birmingham. I went down there for the first time with my dad when I was 10, but before I knew it, I was going into town to skate, with a couple of lads who lived local to me.
B: Birmingham was pretty scary back then though, man.
I think my mum and dad probably just wanted to get rid of me (laughs). “Get him into town”. I’d be with Two Tricks Pat; he’s about six, seven years older than me, so that was why I could go into town, because I was with slightly older lads. My mum and dad knew I was safe, to a certain degree.
R: Did you have any other interests that got sidelined when skating came along?
I didn’t have any other hobbies or any interests, but from the stories I’ve been told, I was a bit of a nightmare when I was younger. Not like a nasty sort of kid, but just mischievous; I’d go missing, and always be climbing up stuff.
B: Basically, you were a cheeky little bastard, right?
Basically yeah (laughs), and I think that fit into skateboarding quite nicely. But with skating, I stumbled across something I was passionate about, which was good.
I was a bit of a nightmare when I was younger. Not like a nasty sort of kid, but just mischievous; I’d go missing, and always be climbing up stuff.
B: When you were going into town back then, where were you skating?
We’d go to Ideal first, and then we’d go to Central Library. That was the main spot in the city, where I met Ozzie Ben (Ben Blake), Vaughan (Baker), and Olly Todd.
R: When did sponsorship enter the picture?
If I’m right, sponsorship came about when I was 12. It was Unabomber, and that was through Vaughan. I’m pretty sure after that, I got Emerica shoes off A4 (Distribution), and that was through Bob Sanderson; he used to get shoes off A4 too. Bob was always such a friendly guy, he’d chat to my parents when we’d go to Ideal; I always got on really well with Bob. We’d go to Radlands, and to all the different skateparks around the UK. Bob was pretty active back then, in his mid-20s.
B: So filming for (the second Unabomber video) Headcleaner was your first experience of being sponsored and needing to produce footage?
Headcleaner…I didn’t really know what was going on with that one. I’d have only been about 14.
B: With the Rhubarb and Custard music on your section as well. Were you too young to know what that TV programme was?
I don’t even know what it is now; I still don’t know why he put that on my part.
B: It was the theme tune for a TV show about some proper cheeky little bastards, basically.
Oh, is it? (Laughing) That makes sense then; I can understand now.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this backside 180 nosegrind is in Monaco, but it's actually in Brum. Photo: Rob Whiston.
B: That must’ve been a bit of a head-f*ck, to go on a trip with someone like Frank (Stephens) who would literally jump off a garage for ten hours without stopping, or Harry who would smash someone’s windscreen if he got p*ssed off.
Harry was a scary f*cker, man. I went up to Newcastle to stop with Harry, skating around with him and Jimmy Boyes, sleeping in one of those Unabomber sleeping bags. It was daunting you know, especially as a young lad who was quite nervous, and the drink quietened the nerves down a little bit. I did used to always feel a certain kind of pressure from a young age, that’s something that I can remember. Feeling pressure and feeling like people were always expecting stuff of me, but they probably weren’t.
B: You were early with the skating, you were early with the sponsorship, and you were early with going to contests, but you were also early with going to the pub weren’t you? Has that got anything to do with the fact that you were a 12-year-old kid traveling around with older people?
Well, I mean, it definitely got me into the pub early. It got me into some other stuff early…when I went to my first AA meeting I was 23, and I was about five years late for that one as well.
B: When did you first buy your own booze in a pub?
I’d say when I was about 14; I had a fake ID. I had my first tattoo at 14; that’s no age to be buying pints and fags and getting tattoos, is it? I didn’t stand a chance really; the odds were against me (laughs).
B: You were always part of the LxBxP crew, with Howard (Cooke), Dougy (McLaughlan) and an all of that. How did a kid from Birmingham end up firstly meeting, then spending so much time with those guys?
Howard mentioned to me not so long ago that we first met at Radlands, at the comp in ‘99. I’d met Kingy (Stephen King) a few times in London when I’d be staying with Hellicar, and he’d come to Birmingham once or twice as well. But it was after the Radlands comp in ‘99 that I’d start going up to Liverpool to skate with that lot. It must’ve been when I was on Unabomber as well, I went to America a few times, with H. The first time I went, it was just after September 11th happened, so that was 2001.
R: Where did you go?
That first time I flew to San Francisco, then we went to Portland, Oregon; we went on a trip for that skate mag Slap. That was pretty sick, man. There was Joe Brook, Corey Duffell, Scott Bourne, and a few of them guys. I was still at school so I’d have been 15.
R: Did you have photos in Slap off the back of that?
I got one photo in Slap, yeah, but I’ve only just seen that recently, when it got posted on Instagram. I thought it was only used in the Independent Trucks book, Built to Grind. H is on top of some fullpipes and he’s heelflipping gap to gap, and I’m just kickturning in one of them. I don’t how that one managed to get in that book; it’s a double page spread!
B: Were you out on the piss in America as well?
R: You must’ve had a pretty convincing fake ID to be underage drinking over there.
I was using other people’s passports to buy drink. I even upset everyone there as well. I upset Kerry Getz the one time, in Philadelphia, when we were staying with Robbie Reid. Robbie worked in Kerry Getz’s shop (Nocturnal). Apparently I was being a little drunk idiot, and he wanted to kill me, Kerry Getz, but he just walked off in the end. That didn’t go down too well (laughs).
B: Diplomacy across the world there, Jim.
I was a little nightmare.
R: Throughout that time period, you had loads of coverage across both mags. You had covers and contents, but I don’t think you ever had an interview. Is this your first proper interview?
I’d say so, apart from ones sitting in a police station (laughs). I’ve had loads of them, but the only answer there is “no comment” (laughs). There’s no laughing in those ones.
R: So you rode for Unabomber for a good few years, and then ended up on A Third Foot. What brought about that switch?
Hellicar had moved Unabomber to Brum, and it was in the same unit as A Third Foot. All of my friends from Brum were on A Third Foot, and A Third Foot was coming up, doing a few trips. It looked like there were a few things going on, and it made sense for me to switch it over to A Third Foot. So I quit Unabomber, then A Third Foot asked me ride for them. I don’t think I was even on A Third Foot that long before all of that came to an end and I got kicked off everyone anyway. That happened when I was on The Big Push in 2006.
B: The one with Dougy and Avid?
Yeah, and apparently Div (David Adam) was on it as well; Div was our guest skater. I can imagine…me, Div, and Dougy, all getting p*ssed in a bus…
I think, to a certain degree, going to jail made me so much worse, because to a lot of people, it gave me that credibility
B: There’s a theme that keeps cropping up in everything that we’re talking about, which is you getting p*ssed. Evidently there was a point where the wheels came off, and drinking stopped being enjoyable, to put it mildly. So The Big Push in 2006, was that a tipping point?
Yeah, definitely. At that time, there was the skatepark in Brum, Epic. It had a bar in there too, so I’d be like, “we’re just going to the skatepark”, but we’d go to the park and not skate; I’d just sit in the bar and get p*ssed with The Wizard, God bless him. It got to the point where I couldn’t skate without having a few beers. I literally couldn’t skate. Every time I’d go skating I’d buy eight cans of beer. I needed to have a drink to get over the initial fear of skating.
B: Was it the fear of hurting yourself, or the pressure to ‘perform’?
Everything. I’d drink, and it would remove all of that fear. Obviously, looking back now, I was crossing that line into alcoholism. I think a lot of people who watched me do that to myself felt a little bit of guilt, but that’s just the way it was; there was no telling me.
B: Did anyone try to say, “James, maybe you should chill out”?
Friends and family did, all of the time. It was beginning to be a problem. Probably at the age of 16 I started getting into trouble with the police as well. I got arrested a couple of times in 2002, then I seemed to get arrested every two years after that. They were always drink or drugs related, or I’d be caught fighting, and there were a few drink driving charges as well.
R: So what was it about The Big Push in 2006 that went so wrong?
Percy (Dean) f*cked me off the tour in the end because I was just being a prick. From then, anything that I was getting from companies, it all stopped. I think that was the right thing to do though, really. Then from 2006, I started knocking about with the wrong crowd.
One very LxBxP frontside tailslide, Liverpool. Photo: Stephen King.
B: Was that from being in the pub all the time, and meeting shady dudes?
More than likely, yeah. You could say they weren’t good people to hang about with, but nor was I. The way I was conducting my life, I fitted in well with those kinds of people.
R: Were you working or anything at that point? How were you surviving?
I was in and out of jobs. I worked for my dad for a bit but he couldn’t carry on employing me, just because I was so unreliable through drinking and drugs. I was doing anything and everything really. I started getting into selling dodgy stuff…anything to feed that lifestyle.
B: You’ve mentioned drugs a few times as well. When did things evolve from just getting drunk for you?
I was 13 when I had my first line of cocaine.
B: Were you old enough to say ‘no’, or to understand the implications of what you were getting into at that point?
Obviously a 13-year-old probably isn’t, but at that point I was acting older than what I was. But I was doing coke more around the Epic days in Birmingham, and I reckon that’s why it all went Pete Tong really, because the coke escalated it to another level. The aggression, the things I’d say, it was like my mind was poisoned at one point; I was not in a good place. People were telling me that I was wrecking my life, that I was killing myself, and I’d say stupid things like, “I want to wreck it; I want to die anyway, so I’m not bothered”.
I admire people who have been down to the depths of hell and got through it.
B: What age were you here?
This was going on between 17 and 20, say. But it was no one’s fault but mine. Anyone that I did put myself into their circles, I chose to do that myself. I wasn’t manipulated into anything; I sought out the people that would accept me.
B: So you weren’t going into Ideal any more, you weren’t speaking to Bob or (then A4 team manager Pete) Turvey?
Not from 2006. In 2007 I got into trouble a couple more times with the police, and then in 2008 I went to prison in the February. A fight kicked off outside a club, and a few bottles got smashed over people’s heads, then the next you know, it’s a serious charge. No one got badly injured, thank God, and it’s definitely not something I’d ever boast about, but ultimately that was the beginning of the end. I got a two and a half year sentence. From there, things just kept going downhill.
A residential frontside rock somewhere in the depths of Leicester. Photo: Rob Whiston.
B: Where did you serve your sentence? Was that in Brum?
That started in Brum, in a prison called Blakenhurst in Redditch, then they moved me to Ashwell in Rutland. I finished up in Leeds, in Wealstun it’s called, which is meant to be an open sort of jail. I got released from there, I got let out early on tag, but within three weeks I was back in again.
B: How come?
Because I got p*ssed, cut my tag off and went on the run. I was causing loads of problems at home. But it was always to do with the drink; I wouldn’t be causing trouble if I was sober.
B: You going to prison wasn’t a rehabilitating experience then?
When I was there I realised where the problem was coming from. I realised I wasn’t a bad person; I knew once the drink and the drugs were gone, I was a good guy, so there wasn’t a whole lot of rehabilitating to do. To be alright, I just needed them both to be gone. But as soon as I got out of prison, I picked up a drink again straight away, which just changed me back again. I didn’t learn my lesson. I’m an alcoholic, and the power of wanting to drink was too great.
R: How long did you go back in for the second time?
That was for about four months, the remaining time of the tag. That was the worst. I remember that really well, sitting in the visiting room, and my mum and dad coming to visit me. I had a big black eye from where my brother had given me a dig because of the way I was acting, and I wanted to burst out crying because of the look of disgust on my mum’s face. She said to me, “all them letters, and all that sh*t you’ve been talking recently, about how you’re going to change, it was all a load of b*ll*cks”. It wasn’t a good time, basically.
B: Were there any positives from being inside?
There is now, because I can try and use those times to help other people not to go down that route. I try and use that experience to benefit others if I can.
I think, to a certain degree, going to jail made me so much worse, because to a lot of people, it gave me that credibility. “Oh he’s been to jail, he knows the score”, that kind of b*ll*cks. It’s all bullsh*t isn’t it? But on the streets, certain people like to hear certain stuff.
No spare board to prop a drain cover up with? Fear not, a concrete block will suffice. 500, Brum. Photo: Rob Whiston.
B: After the second time, did you go back to jail again? Or did you get in more trouble?
I went to my first AA meeting in September 2010. My mum died of cancer in the November, so I started AA was a couple of months before she passed away. I knew I had to stop drinking or else I was going to die. I was really ill; my liver was aching. When you find yourself in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you’re not there because you’re bored and you fancy something to do. I went there, and I managed to put the booze down for six weeks, so when my mum died, she died when I was sober, which was nice. But then a couple of weeks after that, I did what they call ‘swapping seats on the Titanic’ in AA. I put down the drink, and picked up the cocaine. So I stopped alcohol completely, but I was taking coke, and that was my next downwards spiral.
R: What sort of usage are we talking?
Heavy. I’d take as much as I could get my hands on, as often as possible, even down to smoking crack.
R: You’ve said before that there was an incident in Liverpool that served as a turning point for you. Care to tell us about that?
In 2012, I got remanded into Liverpool prison, for being in a car with a load of cocaine in it. I got bail, and that’s when I met Laura, my partner, and she fell pregnant. It was a nightmare because Laura was pregnant and I was looking at a 10-year sentence for possession with intent to supply. The other guy who I was with, he threw his hands up to it, which resulted in me getting a not guilty.
At the end of 2012, Laura was a few months off giving birth, and that was when I finally managed to put the drugs down. It took some goes. I wanted to stop, and I knew I needed to stop, but I just couldn’t. I managed to stop at the end of 2012. Up until not long ago…I had a relapse at the end of 2018, which wasn’t good, but we’ll catch up on that in a bit (laughs).
R: When did you start making progress in turning your life around? Was there a point when you knew things needed to change?
From when I started taking my own recovery seriously, and that was in 2013. There was an occasion on September 11th 2013, I actually had a slip up on the alcohol, and I had a weeklong binge. After that, I started taking my recovery seriously, and I was trying to make the right moves, and change my lifestyle.
B: So on a more positive tip, when did things start to take a good turn again?
Having my daughter, Olivia, gave me a reason to massively sort my sh*t out; she was my number one priority. I knew I never wanted to let her down; I always wanted to be there. Me and Laura, we split up shortly after Olivia was born. I didn’t have much going for me at that point; I wasn’t a nice person, I was coming off drugs and my mind was not right. Laura wasn’t really much attracted to me, which is totally understandable. I just tried to not let my daughter down, and concentrate on getting myself better.
It was 2014 when I started getting myself a normal job, getting into the building trade. I think that was when I made that change from hanging around with idiots, thinking I’m cool, f*cking around and trying earn money, to realising that money doesn’t make you happy. I wasn’t happy. There was something missing, and that was definitely skateboarding.
But from 2014, things started to get a bit better. I’d put the drink and the coke down, the years went by, and I ended up getting back with Laura in 2018. Every day, things get better now.
Brum hasn't been this quiet since Sunday Trading Laws changed in 1994, when James would have been 8 years old. Photo: Rob Whiston.
R: Do you still go to AA meetings?
I still go to AA, yeah. In Birmingham, there’s a real strong AA fellowship. When it’s not lockdown, there’s about 70 odd different meetings a week. I go three times a week, and that keeps me ‘in the boat’ as they say. I’ve got a sponsor, but like I touched on, I actually had a relapse on the coke at the end of 2018. That happened because I stopped going to my meetings, and I stopped helping others. My mind said, “you might be alright having a cheeky line, just have the one”. The next thing you know, I was absolutely f*cked from it for three months. That relapse ended on February 5th 2019. I’d just done five years sober before that, and it literally destroyed me. I learnt a lot from that experience though; you can never let your guard down.
R: Whilst all of this was going on, I’m guessing you weren’t skating?
I didn’t even like talking about skating, and I know now it’s because I felt ashamed that it ended like it did.
R: So when did you start skating again?
I started skating again properly in April 2020.
B: How long did you not step on a skateboard for, at all?
I’d say 12 years, from 2008 to 2020. But I tell you what happened - Vaughan sent me a box in October 2019. He sent me an Anti Hero board, some Spitfire wheels, Indy trucks, two pairs of Nikes, some t-shirts…like a big box of stuff turned up! I met him, Sam Cartwright, Ozzie Ben, Pooface, Two Tricks Pat, Simon Peplow, and a few of the other local lads, and we all had a skate. I think I skated three times in October, but I felt horrible. I hadn’t skated for so long, I had new trainers on and a new set up, like I’d just come out of Ideal at Christmas time in ’95 (laughs). I was all on edge; I was literally rolling around, not doing tricks.
After that, skating was back on my mind. I could talk about it to people a bit more, you know? Winter came, so I wasn’t skating, but I was still speaking to everyone. A few of the local lads from Brum who do @this_is_birmingham on Instagram – Rob Whiston who takes photos, and James ‘OG’ Hewitt who runs the page – they were on my case, like, “come out skating all the time”. Once the first lockdown started in April 2020, I was going out with them every week. Rob and OG were always pushing me to shoot pics and get clips (laughs). I owe a lot to those blokes.
Backside tailslide tip of the hat to Document Magazine issue 26. Photo: Kingy.
R: Did you find that it came back pretty quickly?
I felt alright doing certain stuff, but doing other bits and bobs I was pretty nervous about. The fear has left me a bit now though.
B: But you’re super healthy now, right? You’ve been going to the gym, and you’ve been a healthy guy for a while. I guess that must’ve helped a bit.
I think so, yeah. It’s definitely helped that I’ve stopped smoking, and I haven’t drank for a long time. Even though my story is a bit mad, I’ve only drunk once for three or four days since 2010; that’s got to have some health benefits. I sniffed a fair bit of cocaine on that last relapse, but our bodies can recover from that pretty quickly, so overall I’m fairly healthy.
It’s been a mad journey, but I’m more just stoked to be skating again.
B: That’s one of the benefits of being an early starter, you’ve got it all out of the way and you’re only 34. You’d done a Keith Richards by the time you were 26.
That’s what I mean; the best thing I could’ve ever done was get that out of the way then back on the board. I’m so ‘all or nothing’ with everything.
B: Do you think you’ve transferred that addictive mind-set back into skating again?