Interview by Christian Senrud
2013 has been a year for change if nothing else. Pros who have long been synonymous with their sponsors are packing up and leaving in hopes of starting anew. They're starting up their own brands on their own terms, and picking up skateboarders from other companies left and right. It's nothing new. It's just another turn in the winding river of skateboarding's history, and few know this better than Joe Castrucci, who has both lured people away from their established sponsors and who has felt that same sting now that a few of his own have departed for new horizons. But like the true Midwesterner he is, Castrucci handles it with a level head. "I think once someone's heart is out of something, there's no reason to try to keep them in it," he says. "No one's ever quit because of money. I feel like the only times it's happened, it's been pretty reasonable." With the year nearing its end, we caught up with Castrucci to talk about his 15 years with the Sovereign Sect, recent changes at DNA and his time at Alien Workshop, and running his own company, Habitat Skateboards.
Is being from Ohio what drew you to the mid-century style of art that has always been synonymous with Habitat?
Yeah, I think so, just the resistance here to adapt. I mean, in the '80s when I was soaking in the most stuff and noticing the most things and being the most observant, in Ohio that stuff was still everywhere. Our high schools, all the books, our library had that cool kind of imagery. Then also, [Mike] Hill was a huge influence because he was the art director at the Workshop and he was really into pictograms and simplistic stuff. At first, I was just trying to do stuff that matched the Workshop since this was before Habitat.
What do you think about other brands mimicking Habitat's style?
I just think designers all pull for the same era. There's definitely some people that copy, but also a lot of people pull from that 1950s to mid-'70s time period. It's hard to not see that stuff as being so aesthetically pleasing, and I think a lot of people might feel the same way about it. As far as video stuff, I think people probably copy more. I don't know that there's any way to avoid that though.
Was it tricky starting Habitat and trying to get your dream team while not stepping on the toes of other companies?
Yeah, definitely. It was also the time, though, where people were stealing people a lot, so it was definitely dramatic and it was definitely a big deal back then, but also that's kind of the way it's always worked. I don't think it happens as much anymore. It does, just not as much.
“Every bit of music you listened to, everything you looked at, everything that you surrounded yourself with was all stuff that in some way was feeding into ideas.”
It does seem like it's coming full circle this year, where things are all up in the air again with Dill and AVE leaving and BA going to do his own new thing.
It definitely is, but it seems like people sort of stayed in place for about a decade. But yeah at that time it was sketchy and it was a gamble, definitely, for everyone who quit to ride for us.
Within five years at DNA, you already had two full-length videos under your belt. What was the biggest thing you learned while making Photosynthesis and Mosaic?
That it took complete commitment. Every bit of music you listened to, everything you looked at, everything that you surrounded yourself with was all stuff that in some way was feeding into ideas. I don't think I listened to a single song that I wasn't thinking could be in any of those videos. It's all-consuming, so your personal life, your skateboarding, everything kind of has to be second to these projects.
Is there anything that still to this day you think, "Man, I wish I had chosen this song or tweaked this clip a certain way"?
I think all of them got cut short because you start out with this gigantic idea, you know? And it's just a skate video really, but when skateboarding is your whole life and skate videos are your whole life, there's nothing you can think of that's more exciting than compiling imagery for a skate video. I would always start off, and the first part and the intro always got the most attention, and by the time you got to the midway point you're just like, "Oh my God, I got three weeks left," which is insane—the duration of a skate video and the fact that people edit them in one month or two months is just crazy. So I think all of them were rushed. Every one of them. All of them could have been really good. It's harder to watch now, pretty much any one of them, just because I can see how much was rushed.
But they all hit the mark, Photo and Mosaic especially.
I appreciate that. There were definitely a lot of people working on them too. Still, the crunch is pretty crazy, because at the same time we're crunching those videos, we're also worried about product and ads. I would say that's the main thing I notice, there was just way more potential.
“I don't know what skate companies are supposed to be over a long period of time.”
How did Dill's intro to Photosynthesis come about?
One day at the Workshop in Dayton, [Chris] Carter called Dill and the call was to supposed to be to put the heat on Dill to get footage for the video because we wanted him to have last part. So Hill took a recorder out and recorded the full conversation over speakerphone. It was like an hour-long conversation; it was crazy. I had a house in Clifton and I was full bunkered down editing the video and Hill came and stayed with me for a week. We were working on it fully and were talking bout Dill's part and somehow started talking about the recording, so we listened to it and it was super funny. We weren't sleeping; we were delirious. Somehow Hill had all these photos that McGrath shot and some photos he found from his school and there was a photo of that business guy that was on a slide and we started looking at it and went, "What if that was Carter?" and we started cracking up. It all just came together, so I sat in the room and edited his hour-long conversation down to an intro. Then Hill scanned all the pictures of the businessman and all these pictures [Giovanni] Reda had shot of Dill with the broken telephone, and we assembled it. I put photos of the business guy over the voice of Carter just to be ridiculous and the footage of Dill in his bedroom where it's all messy. I shot that Super 8 on my first trip to LA. It just all came together, just perfect timing. We were cracking up the whole time being delirious editing the video.
Do you have a favorite video part you've worked on?
I like the intros to all of them [laughs]. The first seven minutes is usually my favorite. You can compile everyone together, which is cool, everyone's style. And then you don't have to worry about picking a song for a skater that they like because you can pick a song that you like for yourself because it's the intro. I guess for a skate video, for someone who's making one, it's the only part you hypothetically have the most control over. The intro for Inhabitants might be my favorite—I like the titles and the song and all that stuff.
With that title, Inhabitants Of A World In Decline, it had a broader social commentary. Do you think things have improved at all or are we still on the steady downward spiral?
I just think it's a slow decline, but I always thought of it as that being the way it is. I'm not complaining about it, but I just think it was cool that there we're just this group of people and in this time period.
With Dill and AVE leaving Workshop and the deal with La Jolla, there's been a lot of rumors about DNA. Would you care to comment about what them leaving means, if anything?
I can only speak from my point of view as being from a kind of coming-of-age time period with both those dudes in skating where AVE and me and Dill all started on the Workshop at the same time. I'm really close with them. We made Photosynthesis, traveled, and I have good relationships with those guys. People get older. It's been a long time. I think at some point people just want to do things that they have to do to prove to themselves that they can do them. What are they going to be, in their 40s riding for the Workshop? I think it was just Dill's time to choose to do his own thing and prove to himself that he could do it. It is what it is. I don't know what skate companies are supposed to be over a long period of time. I don't think it's that crazy for him to leave, it's just how things happen.
“I think once someone's heart is out of something, there's no reason to try to keep them in it.”
In 15 years with the Sovereign Sect, what is your best Fred Gall story?
I don't know, man, I haven't traveled with Fred in a while, but I definitely have in the past and I've seen some crazy stuff. I wasn't there, but I think the best one was when they were in Thailand, and I'm sure Fred was drunk, and a Buddhist temple caught on fire, so wasted Freddy got into it and carried monks out. If that's a true story, that's amazing.
It is true.
Is there any chance that there will ever be a DNA box set?
That would be really hard, especially Inhabitants and Photosynthesis. I'd say almost impossible.
What's been the hardest lesson to learn while working at DNA?
The hardest lesson to learn is things you like, things the team likes, and things that you feel like represent the brand the most sometimes don't sell, so you have to balance it. As much as a creative person you don't care if something sells, you still got to pay for these trips, pay these pros, pay for music licensing, and all that. Finding a way to balance bringing money in and also creating cool stuff is always hard. I don't know if people totally understand that struggle. The whole commerce versus creativity thing is always really difficult. You end up with 50-percent of the stuff you make, it's not stuff you 100-percent believe in, but you do your best to make it match the brand, and sometimes you end up with something surprisingly cool. It's whatever, the cliché, the double-edged sword about business and art. Sometimes you'll surprise yourself—you'll be given these parameters to sell something to somebody or a product category that you're not totally psyched on and it gives you this weird motivation to make it as cool as you can given those guidelines and you end up with something that's actually pretty sick.
People getting older is also always a bummer. I never thought I'd see the first generation of Habitat skaters not skateboarding. I never thought that would happen. Not that that's something bad. People just get older and do it less. That's a weird thing to experience, though. You think of your team as a tribe, and then you end up having to get more people to replace people who aren't skating, or kick people off, or people quit. That's always hard for me. You just do your best and try to be fair, but that stuff is difficult.
Was it a big hit when Mark Suciu and Austyn Gillette left Habitat footwear?
Not really. We want what's best for everybody, and the shoes work out really good for some people and for other people it doesn't. With them, it was something they wanted to do and they're friends and the decks are the roots of the company, so if they want to do something else, we're supportive of them. The shoes do well, but I guess we feel that brand is more important and the categories are there and some people represent different categories, but as long as the brand is strong, that's what's important. With someone like Mark, we're just honored that he has a pro board through us. I think once someone's heart is out of something, there's no reason to try to keep them in it. That's kind of the way it was with Mark. If he wants to travel with other people and see things from a different perspective, we're not going to stop that. No one's ever quit because of money. I feel like the only times it's happened, it's been pretty reasonable.
Suciu's really come into his own in the past year. Did the older guys on Habitat kind of help point him in a more creative direction or was that something he just picked up on his own?
That's honestly how he has always been. He's always been really good at keeping up communication globally. He has friends everywhere. He's just a really interesting dude, and he loves skating, skating different stuff, and the history of skating. He's just a really worldly dude. He couldn't leave Northern California at first because he was just a kid, but as soon as he got older, he's always been traveling. There was no grooming. That's just how he is.
What advice would you give to someone today who's in the shoes you were in at 20 years old just starting out at Workshop, wanting to get involved in design and video?
I can relate to Mark a little bit there. At the time I started, I was just interested and I loved skating. I wasn't good enough to be a skateboarder, I was always average, but I wanted to give back and contribute to it in a way I thought was important. And I was competitive. I would say, just don't be satisfied. Those early years, that's when you have to prove yourself, so if you're going to do something, don't be stoked on it until other people are praising it and then still don't be stoked on it, because once you're complacent, that's it. I just don't think you should ever be satisfied, and if somebody's already done it, it's probably not worth doing. That stuff's a lot easier to say at 20 years old and you can really explore these things, but I would say if you're fresh to it and you love it and you're creative, try to create your own look that doesn't already exist.
What's next for Habitat?
We're doing a video that's going to focus on Mark and Dela, and that's gonna have everyone else in it. Those guys just went pro for us, so instead of putting a video part out that would get people psyched for a month, we decided to hold off and put something insane together that comes out around the holidays. Whoever has footage gets a part, but it's really focused on those two. Both of them have really good footage so far.