Donny Barley Pro Spotlight

Nearly closing in on a decade of professional skateboarding, Donny Barley sits down for his first-ever Pro Spotlight, and most candid interview ever, to talk about his momentary absence from the limelight, who the most important people in skateboarding are, and why he would possibly skate in the snow.

Your sponsorship history has spanned many companies since you first turned pro for Toy Machine in 1997. Since then you’ve spent time with Element, Birdhouse, and now Zoo York. Up until now, what’s been your favorite time and place to be in skateboarding??Well, it’s been a really amazing ride to say the least. To say that any one period was better than another wouldn’t really be true. Throughout the years I have had opportunities galore. I have made friends with just about everyone in the skate world. I’ve met all the pros I had worshipped as a youngster. I had heated skate sessions with the best skaters that walk the earth, had my skate footage in over 40 different videos, appeared on TV and commercials, worked for some of the most outstanding brands existing today, and traveled to so many countries that I had no room on my passport for another stamp. Even hitting the low points from trying to understand loss and learning to grow up and be a man! All these times have been just huge for my growth, and I couldn’t ever say that any place or time was better. I’m just grateful I got to experience it all.

When you were getting ready to get on Zoo, the team was in a transition period with all the Aesthetics guys coming over at the same time. How did it come about that you’d ride for Zoo

I had spoken to Zoo before getting on Birdhouse. They wanted me to quit riding for Quiksilver, but I didn’t want to do that, so I rode for Birdhouse instead. About ten months later, my good friend Kenny Hughes mentioned his Element contract was up finally and he was ready to make a move with Aesthetics. A short time later, all at once the Aesthetics dudes ended up on Zoo, and Kenny called me up saying they had a spot for me. This time around they didn’t care if I stayed with Quiksilver. So I waited for my Birdhouse contract to end and then made my move. I owe it all to Kenny! He and I have been boys since like ’92 or so. It’s funny, though, ’cause three months after getting on Zoo I get this phone call from Quiksilver saying that I was fired! Dedication doesn’t always get you far in big business-lesson learned!

Is it a comforting feeling riding for an East Coast skateboard company for the first time in your life, especially since you live on the East Coast most of the year … or does it really even matter?

Yeah, it’s cool for sure. I always wanted there to be a great, lasting, skateboard company from the East because that’s what my roots are. I think my main inspiration for that was Shut Skateboards. Back in the late 80s and early 90s Shut was the main company for us on the East. They had all the greatest East Coast street skaters, and it was just the rawest dream team of epic dudes like Sean Sheffey, Barker Barrett, Jeremy Henderson, and Jeff Pang. Growing up and feeling the vibe those guys had going sort of always stayed with me. Everyone knows NYC is the hardest city in the world, so riding for Zoo York is an honor for me and for the teamriders. We know we have the whole city behind us. It’s like playing for the Yankees. I can’t lie, though, I’m a Red Sox fan ’til death! What curse?

Has your approach in getting new sponsors been more of a “you go to them,” or a “them come to you”? Or has it changed as you’ve matured in skateboarding?

I know what brands I like and what I want to be involved in. So in the past I would rarely ever ask a brand to sponsor me out of being shy and inexperienced in the business side of things. I have matured and learned lessons about big business, thanks to most of my dealings in my years as a professional. Now, with advice from key friends and my own knowledge, I do all of my own negotiations, and my lyer helps explain everything to me before I sign anything as far as contracts go. I don’t have an agent like most of the young kids do. I would be happy to have someone represent me, though, then I could focus more on my skateboarding.

There was a span from about 2002 to 2003 where it seemed you were nowhere to be found, at least in the skateboarding media. Have there been times where you felt you were over skateboarding, and you didn’t see yourself engaging in this as a career any longer?

I was never over skateboarding! I went threw a period where I was upset and jaded from some events that happened in my career. And being a stubborn person, I kind of carried those issues with me for a few years. I talked bad about some of the people I worked with: I was just unhappy for a bit. I split up with the girl I was in love with. The reason for that was because I traveled so much to make my sponsors happy. So I just had a spell where I didn’t want to be in the magazines or videos-just kinda had plans on falling back into another profession so I could enjoy my skateboarding just for myself and not feel like I was whoring my life away for companies and have them make millions off my name. Then I realized I wanted to let go of the stubbornness and move on and get back into the skate world. I think I was just burnt out.

There was a Tum Yeto tour in the summer of ’95 where you and the guys randomly showed up a school in Chicago for a surprise demo, and this is where I really recall witnessing the power of the switch hardflip, as well as the resurgence of the Smith grind on street, compliments of you and Satva (Leung). At a time when most everyone was doing the same shit, you definitely had a different bag of tricks for the day, and your part in Eastern Exposure would definitely confirm that the following year. And then of course the Barley grind would further confirm that. Do you remember where you drew your inspiration from back in those days?

I drew my inspiration from everyone before me. Thanks to all the skaters I had watched in the videos and in the magazines and in person. I had about ten years of skateboarding under my belt at the time and had studied just about everything I could when it came to skateboarding. As my passion I just took it all in and tried to do as many tricks as possible growing up-looking up to everyone and following what they had done and working on mastering as many movements as possible. I spent endless nights dreaming of my body moving in these ways and visioning myself landing back on the board, hours and hours of daydreaming and mental visualization. So all the tricks I was doing were just a direct interpretation of all the things that I had seen and learned from the skaters before me. At the time I didn’t even have the slightest clue that I was doing anything special. I was just following my thoughts and visions and just enjoying the control that I had learned up to that point. I vaguely remember that day. It’s crazy that ten years later here we are for this interview.

It’s crazy how skateboarding works like that. So just to clarify it for the skateboarding population, is the Barley grind only a switch 180 to Smith, or could it also be a 180 to switch Smith?

I still don’t know who coined the phrase “Barley grind.” I want to say Mike Burnett! But I really don’t know. Whoever did, I thank you, and I’m flattered to have my name attached to a skateboard trick. But if I had a million bucks, I would bet that I wasn’t the first person to ride away from that trick goofy or regs. I saw Gonz doing all sorts of different variations of tricks like it in the Blind video Video Days. So that was kind of what made me think of it and later learn it. To be honest, as flattered as I am, I really don’t feel comfortable answering that question. I will say they feel better doing them backside. I’ve been doing them for a few years now, and it’s more fun ’cause its a blind trick looking under your armpit sort of-definitely more challenging. Give it a try!

How in the hell do you, someone who has contributed so much to skateboarding and has even had a pro shoe for Emerica in days past, not have even a shoe sponsor currently? Or is Nike flow that much better than full pro on any other team in your opinion?

(Laughs) Thanks! I know what I like and what I want to be involved with. Initially I asked my friend Reese Forbes if I could score some Nike sneakers. He hooked me up with them, and they offered to give me shoes regularly. Later they put me on an incentive program that would give me money when I had photos printed in the mags. So I’ve just been doing that now for the past two years. They flew me to the headquarters and gave me the grand tour. It was really extensive and thorough. I learned a lot about the history and the research they do. It’s a great interest of mine. Slowly I hope to get deeper involved with them. I feel with my knowledge of skateboarding and their experience developing sneakers I can really help them evolve skateboard footwear, maybe help them make sneakers that can help performance or prevent injury. But yeah, it’s worth it to me to keep on with my pursuit, and who knows what the future holds. Never say never.

Growing up and living in a new millennium our lives are swarmed in a whirlwind of nonsense and we often forget what matters. What are a few of the things that are truly important to you?

Well, I’m not the young kid anymore, unfortunately. What’s important to me may be a little different from the youth reading this. But I doubt it, because I gained a lot of my perspective from the youth of today. By the time this prints I’ll be 32 years old. Thanks to skateboarding I don’t really feel a day over twenty! Just about every day I skate with folks younger than me and usually half or even a third my age. But at the end of the day, whether I like it or not, I’m 32 years old. With that I have all those years of experience. We all know life has its ups and downs and that’s been no exception for me. But thanks to the great support I have had from family, friends and all my brothers in our skate world I have grown to be what I am today. So what matters to me is staying alive first off. So obviously I try to make mature choices with everything I do. Staying real with myself is very important to me.

Change is also very important and one of the main reasons that I’ve been able to continue to progress. Progressing and growth are huge in your skateboarding but far huger in life. Learning to let go is very hard but very important, at least it was for me. And you know yourself more and more from it. Knowing yourself and being comfortable with yourself brings happiness. And with happiness your thoughts will be free and open to create and influence others positively on your skateboarding and in life! The world moves very quickly, and it’s amazing how much each generation learns faster than the one before. With money ruling our world everything is a hustle. Fame and fortune become high priority for all of us. So if we know this early and all try to stay balanced with our lives as individuals, then we can influence each other positively to concentrate more on personal creative accomplishments rather than exploiting one another for monetary gain. I’d rather be exploited than to exploit someone else. I truly believe that everything will catch up to you at some point, or at the end. So I try to be as wise as I can but nobody is perfect.

Eastern Exposure left a big impact on skateboarding, as did your part in Welcome To Hell, among others. The impact seems to not be so forceful with the swarm of videos that drop these days. Do you get excited when new videos come out?

Yeah, I get hyped to see new videos for sure. Because I choose to live on the road as much as possible, I see the videos when I’m lucky enough to hit a skate shop at the right time. I’m blessed to have friends all over the world, so usually I hear a-definitely more challenging. Give it a try!

How in the hell do you, someone who has contributed so much to skateboarding and has even had a pro shoe for Emerica in days past, not have even a shoe sponsor currently? Or is Nike flow that much better than full pro on any other team in your opinion?

(Laughs) Thanks! I know what I like and what I want to be involved with. Initially I asked my friend Reese Forbes if I could score some Nike sneakers. He hooked me up with them, and they offered to give me shoes regularly. Later they put me on an incentive program that would give me money when I had photos printed in the mags. So I’ve just been doing that now for the past two years. They flew me to the headquarters and gave me the grand tour. It was really extensive and thorough. I learned a lot about the history and the research they do. It’s a great interest of mine. Slowly I hope to get deeper involved with them. I feel with my knowledge of skateboarding and their experience developing sneakers I can really help them evolve skateboard footwear, maybe help them make sneakers that can help performance or prevent injury. But yeah, it’s worth it to me to keep on with my pursuit, and who knows what the future holds. Never say never.

Growing up and living in a new millennium our lives are swarmed in a whirlwind of nonsense and we often forget what matters. What are a few of the things that are truly important to you?

Well, I’m not the young kid anymore, unfortunately. What’s important to me may be a little different from the youth reading this. But I doubt it, because I gained a lot of my perspective from the youth of today. By the time this prints I’ll be 32 years old. Thanks to skateboarding I don’t really feel a day over twenty! Just about every day I skate with folks younger than me and usually half or even a third my age. But at the end of the day, whether I like it or not, I’m 32 years old. With that I have all those years of experience. We all know life has its ups and downs and that’s been no exception for me. But thanks to the great support I have had from family, friends and all my brothers in our skate world I have grown to be what I am today. So what matters to me is staying alive first off. So obviously I try to make mature choices with everything I do. Staying real with myself is very important to me.

Change is also very important and one of the main reasons that I’ve been able to continue to progress. Progressing and growth are huge in your skateboarding but far huger in life. Learning to let go is very hard but very important, at least it was for me. And you know yourself more and more from it. Knowing yourself and being comfortable with yourself brings happiness. And with happiness your thoughts will be free and open to create and influence others positively on your skateboarding and in life! The world moves very quickly, and it’s amazing how much each generation learns faster than the one before. With money ruling our world everything is a hustle. Fame and fortune become high priority for all of us. So if we know this early and all try to stay balanced with our lives as individuals, then we can influence each other positively to concentrate more on personal creative accomplishments rather than exploiting one another for monetary gain. I’d rather be exploited than to exploit someone else. I truly believe that everything will catch up to you at some point, or at the end. So I try to be as wise as I can but nobody is perfect.

Eastern Exposure left a big impact on skateboarding, as did your part in Welcome To Hell, among others. The impact seems to not be so forceful with the swarm of videos that drop these days. Do you get excited when new videos come out?

Yeah, I get hyped to see new videos for sure. Because I choose to live on the road as much as possible, I see the videos when I’m lucky enough to hit a skate shop at the right time. I’m blessed to have friends all over the world, so usually I hear about what’s out through friends letting me know over the phone or e-mail. And then from there I usually try to have them send me a copy if they can because I enjoy collecting skate videos and studying different techniques in the skateboarding itself as well as the production. I would love to produce my own skateboard videos one day, or even produce a feature film.

What do you think you would have done with your life had you not found skateboarding?

Ever since I was born I was a daredevil of sorts. My parents taught me how to swim as an infant and told me that as a child I was always challenging my limits athletically. I played soccer my whole adolescent life, as well as studying martial arts. I fell in love with skateboarding instantly for its challenging aspects. Had I not found this I would have followed my dad, grandfather, and most of my forefathers and joined the armed services. I would have joined the Marines, or the Army Rangers or maybe even tried to be a Navy Seal. My dad was in the Navy for almost 25 years and had an incredible career. My grandfather was a Purple Heart recipient! I think I would have joined because it would have been the most honorable thing for me to do with my life. In Connecticut I wouldn’t have found too much work to choose from. You either learn a trade or join the service. So I would have joined the service for the adventure, challenge, and the honor to defend our beautiful country. Now’s a perfect time to thank all the soldiers fighting overseas. Cheers, fellas! My cousin Jesse Lewis is one of them. Be safe, Jesse, and get home soon, buddy. We miss you!

You’ve been getting involved in park design lately. Is that something you truly have to study, or is it something you just kind of know what you want, and you have to get your hands dirty a little bit, a trial-and-error type of thing? To what capacity have you involved yourself?

Well, I have helped build and construct wooden structures over the years and a few concrete ones as well. That’s been a great trade to know, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of studying. As of late I’ve been trying to help a good friend of mine with his business. My good buddy Sam, who I grew up with, started his own skatepark-building business like two years ago-concrete, of course. And he can skate anything, by the way. But he would always call randomly and ask questions like, “Hey, how high should I build this rail?” So over the last year I’ve been trying to sort of consult with him on a few of his projects. He has really dreamy designs and is one of the best park builders around. It’s been cool to help and volunteer. I’m just trying to help him build his business so we can have better parks out here in the East. We have big plans and would love to turn the East Coast into, like, the way Oregon is. Out there you have concrete all over and can shred five parks in one day if you’re up for it. So hopefully we can get to that level over the next ten years. If you’re interested in viewing some of the projects, you can go to breakinggroundskateparks.com. Sam Batterson, a.k.a Sloppy Sam, is the mastermind behind it all, and none of this would be going on had he not pursued his dream to build. If your town needs an ill skatepark, let’s talk!

Who would you say have been the five most important people in skateboarding up until this point?

This has to be the hardest question yet, and understand that I will mention folks that have been instrumental to me and so it may not exactly be fair or in any order, but I’ll try my best. The first person I have to mention is Greg Carroll. For those that don’t know, he’s Mike Carroll’s older brother. He was the first to really discover me. He took me under his wing and really was a big influence on me at a time when I was young and on my own out on the West Coast. This dude is responsible for just about half of the careers of skateboarding professionals to this day. Cheers, Greg!

Next I would say Mark Gonzales for inspiring me t