Over the years, plenty of musicians, celebrities, and actors from outside our realm have taken a temporary stab at skateboarding. Most have generally spoken about it far louder than they have skated. Ben Harper is not one of these dabbling Davids. Since growing up in Claremont, skating Upland with Chris Miller in his childhood skate crew, at the turn of 38, while randomly setting up a board for his son to try he decided to get back on it himself. Since then, Ben has been on an outright flatground mission—from teaching himself kickflips at 40, to landing his very first switch 360 flip on his 45th birthday. While he admittedly had some pretty good coaching (pointers from Rodney Mullen never hurt), the following is the incredible story of his five-year plan. What's your excuse?
What was the process behind learning switch 360 flips?
I had worked up enough switch tricks to where attempting a switch tre somehow seemed like a distant, yet attainable challenge. My process when it comes to landing the bigger tricks in the very beginning stage is forcing myself to work on the trick for only 20-30 minutes a day out of a three hour session, casually to get a general feel for it, not in a lazy way to where I’d get injured or anything, But in a way that helps me understand what it is I will be doing and what the board will be doing, while keeping it relatively pressure free at first. I figure there’s plenty of time to have the trick as a temporary adversary—may as well start out on the same team. From there I go by feel, and when the trick comes clearly into focus, I start to ratchet things up.
You mentioned that you learned switch pop shove-its first. How long did the whole process take?
I started with switch backside pop shoves and switch kickflips. They were feeling good enough after week one to start scratching the surface on switch tres. The next logical move would be switch varial flips, but I remembered learning regular stance varial flips making it harder for me to learn regular tre flips, so I started on 20+ minutes out of my daily routine on switch tres and at the end of week two or so, I was skating with my buddy HK at Stoner, and I landed one bolts, but Wilsoned! I couldn’t believe it! So of course I figured that was a sign of being ready to hit the turbines and go full bore after it. But this time I was wrong. I had received an early Christmas present. I started going after switch tres three hours a day or more, and once it’s on, it’s all the way on. So at the end of week three, I’m killing the switch pop three-shove game, but can’t get my front foot to join the party! My crew said I should be stoked with the switch three shove, which of course I was, but still, not what I was going for. Finally at week four or five, on my birthday I hit a couple of switch tres. And you know that feeling when it finally goes down. Damn. I fully thought this would be a six-month trick at least, and probably would’ve been if I didn’t get the early close call. It will certainly be a solid year before I can really take them to the streets, so now the work begins. Keeping after it to get it down with purpose.
Hardest part of making a switch tre? Any tips? I really want to know because I cannot do them myself. At 37, I figure I still have another eight-year window to learn them now since you are 45!
Man oh man Mackenzie you have plenty of time! I had three significant problems with this trick. One is keeping my shoulders square. That took some doing—almost to where it felt like I was having to overcompensate my right shoulder in order to square up, but I'd look at the tape, and even though I felt like I was squared up, I was still drifting. The second was getting what once was my power foot, to now flick, and have some finesse.
Which leads to the third problem, which should’ve been finding the power in my back leg, but was the opposite. I played basketball and did the triple jump in high school and jumped off of my left foot, so even though I’ve been regular stance all my life, in every sport other than skateboarding, my left leg is my power leg, and that doesn’t go away. So I’d pop and scoop, and by the time the signal went from my brain to my front foot for a flick, the board had come around for a three shove! And for me, finding the strength and power to bring a trick around is more natural than having to let off the gas and use less force. That’s a long way of saying timing the front and back foot together in switch stance was super challenging for me.
How did that first one you made feel?
Felt as good as the best song I’ve ever written or will write. As good as the coolest guitar lick I’ve ever played or tried to play.
Ben’s very first switch 360 flip. Age 45. October, 2014 in NYC.
How long have you been focusing on flatground skating now? I've seen you progress incrementally I think since I first met you at Nine Star skateshop maybe four years ago.
Nine star! I miss that place. I grew up skating vert at the upland pipeline watching Chris Miller and Salba blow minds daily. Even though I got more into high school sports, I always found a way to skate, even if it was just super low key, not wanting to let go of that feeling and always kept a board in my car everywhere I went. Then one day I took my youngest son to kick a ball around at the park and he heard the sound of skateboarding, and it pulled him in, he looked at me, pointed and said, "That! No ball—that!" Next thing you know we’re at RIP City skate shop setting him up a board, and there was no way I was gonna let him have all the fun. It was back on! I was around 38 at the time. After a year or so of getting back to vert, it was time to ollie. Flat out, no more excuses, no more ducking it. I just thought it was one of the coolest looking things on the planet, so out came the broomstick, then the bricks to lift it up higher and higher. Non skaters would get in my car and immediately turn to me and say “Yo b, what's with all the bricks and broomsticks and shit?" Once I could regularly ollie 12 inches, I figured, maybe, somehow someway I could start reaching for a kickflip. A kickflip was more than on my bucket list, it was my bucket list. I said if I could ever make a kickflip, I can die happy! I finally made one in a hotel room in Boston, then hit my first proper one on my 40th birthday, and that was it. No turning back.
That's so rad. What was the rough order of tricks you learned?
It basically went: Ollie, kickflip, double kickflip, backside pop-shove, heelflip, double heelflip, frontside pop-shove, varial heel, switch heelflip, nollie, nollie varial heelflip, nollie flip, nollie heel, nollie frontside pop-shove, nollie backside pop-shove, nollie inward heelflip, hard flip, varial flip, tre flip, 360 backside shove, dolphin flip, ollie impossible, frontside 180, backside 180, fakie heel flip, fakie flip, 360 front pop-shove, laser flip, nollie frontside 360 pop-shove, switch front pop-shove, switch varial heel, fakie tre flip, frontside flip, half cab heelflip, switch backside pop-shove, switch kickflip, switch tre flip. I think that I'm forgetting some but that's the rough list.
Damn. That's some serious work. Do you take some slams on these tricks? Is it physically demanding?
Absolutely. I take crazy hard slams, especially when I'm working up speed or going off stuff. I took a solid slam in front of my moms today on a frontside flip! It was pretty crucial. The cool part was being able to bounce back up and land it a few tries later while she was still there watching a group of us skate. It's the most physically demanding thing I have ever done.
How about mentally? Is it a Jedi state? Mind over matter?
Mentally, I come from the perspective that if something is not impossible, there must be a way of doing it, and my mind informs my body accordingly.
A video posted by @harperbenjamin on
By December 12 (after this interview was conducted) Ben had also learned nollie tre flips. Here’s his whole collection of tres: 360 flip, switch 360 flip, nollie 360 flip, fakie 360 flip.
What has been your interaction with skateboarding through the years?
I have always felt that there is something uniquely special about the sport, the culture and those who commit to doing it. I've always maintained a passion for skateboarding through the years regardless of what else was going on in my life at the time. Dog Town and The Bones Brigade were our heroes. To our local skate crew in the small Southern California town of Claremont where I grew up, those guys may as well have been wearing capes and fighting crime.
When did you start?
I started skateboarding in 1978 or '79. I was nine or ten. Crazy to think that in five years I will have been rolling around for forty years!
I don't have a favorite era, mainly because I personally get so much out of all the different eras of skateboarding. Going back and learning about some of the eras that I missed has been as fulfilling as the ones I was a part of. When I pull all the way back for a wider view, I'm noticing that style wise—all the eras seem to be converging now—making this a crazy exciting moment in skateboarding. So I guess now is my favorite era. Eras are more for people who stop skating.
You were sort of involved in skating back in the '90s a bit right? I remember seeing a music video of yours with pool skating in a 411 video (circa '94).
An indirect but huge way that skateboarding affected my life was that skateboarding was one of the main reasons my creative partner at that time named JP moved from Brittany, the Celtic region of western France, to Southern California in the late seventies. JP played a major roll in helping me get my music career off the ground. By the time I put out my second record called Fight for Your Mind in 1995, we had an actual video budget in the contract! When we found this out, JP and I looked at each other and said, "Skateboarding!" As a kid who grew up obsessed with skating and music, for me to be able to bring those two together, and with skating legends Lance Mountain, Salba, and Jeff Grosso all skating in my f—king video, for me it couldn't get much better. I can never thank those guys enough for laying it down the way they did in that video. With Lance Accord filming, it was nuts. And the 411 crew, I appreciate those guys so much. Rodney (Mullen) used a song of mine in an early 411 video, which was of course a massive honor. People say to me all the time how they first heard about me from 411. I have to thank the 411 guys big time.
Ben’s video Ground on Down from 411 Issue 13 (1995).
Any reason for the focus on flatground specifically? Is the Stoner quarterpipe next?
As far as flatground, it just looked so damn badass, and there was so much else you could do with those skills in so many other areas of skating. I was 40, and I just didn't want to wait until I turned 50 to start learning flatground. When I turn 50 I plan on retiring from music to skate full-time. I specifically remember one high school basketball team I was on, where we were tied for last place in our league with a rival team. Why two last place teams would even bother to be rivals is beyond me, but the last game of the season was against this other worst team, and with 10 seconds left to go in the fourth quarter, it was tied like 20 to 20 or something horrible, and it was my team’s ball. My coach calls time out and brings us in for the huddle. He calls a play where the ball gets inbounded to me, and the rest of the team all runs to the center of the key and stands perfectly still, clogging up the lane. He tells the team to watch the clock and says that I am to yo-yo the ball up and down until the clock hits the five second mark, at which point the other four guys are to break away from the center of the key like wild-fire, at which time I am to stride down what he says will be a wide open lane for a right-handed layup. We go back onto the floor, and his plan works to perfection and we win by two. But what has stayed with me all this time was not winning that game. Not at all. What has stayed with me is the feeling I got from making the winning shot. Because every time I land a trick, any trick, it is the exact same feeling as making that winning basket. I don't mean just big tricks—I'm talking pop shoves, ollies and kick flips! Every trick feels that good! Thank you skateboarding! And absolutely that quarterpipe is calling my name!
Obviously apples and oranges, but what kind of comparison can you make between learning skateboard tricks and creating music? What kinds of rewards does each bring? Is one more cerebral than the other? Do you go to the same place when you write music as when you learn a trick?
The connections are that they both have a certain rhythm and flow as well as a groove that I try to get inside of. Also the more you do both of them, the better you get at both, and I have found the rewards to be a sense of accomplishment and a soulful fulfillment that goes into every other aspect of my life and perspective, and in that sense they are separate roads to the same destination.
What skateboarders that you have witnessed live have impressed you the most? Favorite pros all time?
That's a tough one because I am so impressed and blown away by so many different skaters for different reasons, pro and non-pro, i mean the list goes on forever. The same with music and musicians. Naming a favorite band or musical artist is rough, because for every one you name, you leave off ten. However an experience from my youth is the best answer to this. Chris Miller and I were groms at the same time from the same town and went to the same school up through junior high. I had the privilege to witness not only his extraordinary ascent in skateboarding first hand, but to watch how incredibly humble, kind and generous he remained to all his pals who clearly didn't have what he had. This made a strong impression on me at a very early age. He just never made a big deal out of any of it. Some days we'd just go to the spot and play video games. Or he'd say, "Ya know what guys, let's BMX today instead.” Now of course none of us could keep up with him on a dirt bike either because he was also completely badass at BMX as well. I'm just glad he chose skateboarding! At a young age, watching a friend become one of the best there is at something, especially something I loved as much as skateboarding, and watching closely how hard he worked, how disciplined he was, and how natural and comfortable he looked in the process, while remaining so down to earth, this was incredibly special and rare to get to see from up close. Chris has always represented to me that all things are possible. Thank you Chris Miller!
I believe you’re a big Rodney Mullen fan correct? What can you say about someone like Rodney who invented pretty much every flatground trick?
I am Rod’s number one fan, and am extremely fortunate to have him as a friend, a brother and a coach. I don't think I would've landed the majority of the tricks that I have if it weren't for him, but then again i guess we could all say that!
You seem to have a good crew of skate friends at Stoner and with the Gracias LA posse.
From Mike York and the Roller Horror crew, the Gracias crew, and the Decorum crew, as well as the core Stoner locals, not only have I learned a ton about skateboarding but have made some lifelong friends.
What do you think makes skateboarders unique?
Of course everybody goes through personal and emotional pains throughout life, but most people don't go through the physical pain skaters do on a daily basis in pursuit of their goal. Most people don't literally hit the ground. So it's a rare combination of the personal and the physical pain and how those not only play off each other, but also relieve one another creating a sense of humility, character and perspective unique to any other i have ever seen.
I know you are good friends with Chris Pastras. Have you ever skated with Jason Lee? He would be the owner of the best non-switch 360 flips.
Chris is all-time! I have known Chris a long time, and we always pick right up where we last left off. He constantly pushes and inspires me to be a better skater. I am hoping somewhere soon down the road he and I get hall passes and spend a week solid at Woodward or wherever so I can learn front Smiths from him. I haven’t skated with J. Lee yet, and so we're clear, I'm nowhere near good enough to skate 'with' him, maybe more 'within proximity' of him. His 360 flips are the gold standard.
Switch 360 flips are pretty much considered the royal flush of flatground tricks. What's next on the bucket list?
Well, I'm going to keep working to get them down proper, and then go for nollie tres. After that I'm going to check in with Rodney (Mullen) for the next assignment!
Make sure to follow Ben on Instagram for more stoke!