Interview: JanHe is from the land of savoir vivre and cheese and wine but currently resides in hipster hot-spot, Berlin. This social media savvy sociologist, long time long-timer for one of Europe’s once elite skate brands is now mingling with the stars, but Sylvain Tognelli is quick to point out, “My life is not really full of interesting stuff, I just skate.” Of course he does. And he does it well. More over, that is why the charming Frenchman is going through some radical changes right now and it is also the reason his blatant understatement above could be read tongue in cheek. Yet, it also has some truth in it – it’s all a matter of standpoint. Time to shine a light and have peep some of the thoughts of Monsieur Sylvain Tognelli…
Err… Well, in my opinion, skateboarding these days is at a point where everyone needs to choose their path; and that might involve splitting up. It is going to be interesting to see the future of it all.
Is that your theory or have you taken that from the article?
I don’t agree so much with the article. They claim corporates will be aiming to rationalise skateboarding, so that it can be more easily consumed by the masses, and I don’t really agree with that. I believe they can profit of normal street skating, if they brand it well. And that is half of the article, which really is an interesting read, but in truth it reveals more about the author’s take on it. My take is this: when you go to a skate shop or wherever and buy skate product, with what you buy, you participate in the industry and culture. And, after all, skateboarding is an industry, people in it are here to make money, I’m not judging that. What I’m getting at is that investors from the outside, who are not skating and have no background in it, will be much quicker to pull the plug and get out if the profits can be made more easily elsewhere. Not saying there is evil in the corporate, that’s just the structure of it. It’s made to make money, period. So, if you picture skateboarding as a wall and each company is a brick, it’ll end up getting pretty sketchy once too many of those turn corporate. Because, if too many pull out, the entire wall is coming down. At least this goes for the industry side of things, ignoring all things cultural for the moment.
You have people ending up with only an energy drink sponsor, thinking, “What happened?!” At the same time it gets harder and harder for core brands to keep up with the money the others are willing to offer up. Just staying in business for them turns out to be a challenge.
But as I said, it’s not all bad…
Well, trying to clarify this a bit, you say it’s okay for people from the outside to buy their skateboarding credibility?
No. What I’m saying is: if you’re supporting a brand that’s not from a skateboarding background, you’re taking a risk; you’re making the industry more fragile. Of course, at the same time you make it bigger. However, you’re feeding something that is most likely to leave one day. By the time the masses’ attention shifts towards the next trend, the hover board or whatever, that’s where those corporates will be going.
But wouldn’t you agree that pretty most all other sports stay more or less relevant to the big brands? Puma, adidas, Nike, Asics – whoever, they still support, say, table tennis…
At the end of the day, there will be some accountant or manager who decides where the money goes. And if he doesn’t see investments make a profit, he’ll put them elsewhere. Looking at skater-owned brands like Antiz on the other hand, who haven’t really made much profit in ten years or so, they still keep going, because, what are they going to do? They’re not going to invest in something else instead!
Yeah, it’s the same thing. All the farmer knows is farming, that’s his thing. One year his crops will be better than the other, still he’ll always go on to do what he knows. He’s not going to start investing in pharmaceuticals the next year, because that’s what a corporate farming company might do with half their budget if one winter the prospects for rocket doesn’t look too good.
Okay, so now we have your general outlook. What’s in store for you then, having left your long-time sponsor Blueprint just recently?
Well, with Blueprint: the thing that no one knew was, that it was in fact owned by Nike and Red Bull; and we didn’t want to support corporates any longer (laughing). But seriously: Blueprint was bought by Pure Distribution three years ago, which was the best option the guys in charge had at the time, because Faze 7, the old owner, was being liquidated. There were not a lot of options at the time as the industry was in a bad place but Pure seemed fitting because it was actually owned by an old skater, he knew what he was doing, had promised to push the company and also keep Blueprint its own entity, away from other brands he owned. Everyone of the riders agreed on making the move, and it was good. We all were actually quite motivated on the new thing, getting some new guys on, who were picked really well by Shier and Magee. Some people in England were not super stoked on Blueprint going to America, but at least the team was happy about it and still together. But with time, some things didn’t go that well and doubts started to arise. Magee wasn’t motivated, Baines left and eventually Shier. Hence, what made Blueprint was gone. So then us riders felt there was no point in staying. There has been talk of mutiny or whatever. But mutiny implies you rebel against your boss. To us the boss is Shier!
So that is the state of Blueprint. What’s the outlook for you, personally?
Well, all of us on the team have been, and still are, really good friends, we wanted to stay together but that is sometimes hard when Blueprint was a team of 12+ guys. So, right now we’re in the planning phase of creating something new – a new little family to keep going on trips with. Because that’s what we want to do: go on trips with good friends and work on some videos! We aren’t here to take over the world or cash into new trends, just to carry on doing what we love to do.
But Sylvain, you do know: when you don’t move forward, you move backwards, right (laughing) ? No new trends (laughing)?
I don’t know. I think, our generation, we don’t really know anything other than going on trips and filming for videos. Not so much more…
But which generation do you think knew better?
I think younger brands might be more aware of what skateboarding really is at this stage, the state of skateboarding being a bit more mainstream. They know how to create a hype outside of skateboarding.
Well, shouldn’t you know!? Didn’t you study just that? In your last interview, in Kingpin 67, you were speaking about some myspace/facebook studies you were doing, dead-on social media shit! You should know more than the average guy and in that sense be well prepared.
My studies weren’t about how to create a company hype. I know a little bit about social media and the way people build their personalities therein. But this was sociology. I don’t know about marketing at all, I only have theories.
What I can say is: I’m exited about what we’re going to do. I’m excited for the things to come. I just don’t want to say too much because everything is still at the state of planning right now.
Are guys putting your own money in then?
The last Euros I had left for this month I drank away last night, and what was left you borrowed for coffee just now! (laughing) If I had money, I’d happily consider it, I think a lot of the others are in a similar position. Thing is though, we don’t want to have another secret owner like before, because I think that was one of the reasons Blueprint went bad: people were not sure who was behind it and that is not how any brand should be run. When people used to ask me who owned it, I would say Magee, even though I knew in reality he didn’t. The next thing is definitely going to be owned by us, the skaters, with Paul Shier backing in financially.
Are you guys aiming at something similarly rooted in the UK-scene as Blueprint always has been?
It’s mid-December now, we’re still in midst of planning things. But what I can say is, the brand is going to reflect what we are: close friends that like traveling together – because anything we’re not really about we’d have no resources for. The original spirit of Blueprint is not really about a location, it is more what Shier, Colin, Baines, Magee and those guys brought to the plate. They could go anywhere in the world and bring their own vision and tricks. So, I don’t think we will need an office in London or any of that. But yeah, for sure some things will be similar, because that’s the skateboarding we’re all into.
So can we expect to see new people too rather than a recycled Blueprint bits and pieces?
Yeah, for sure some new people. We’re definitely moving on. We‘re not trying to blueprint Blueprint, we just share the roots. Here again we are still figuring out the team. Shier is pulling the strings. We all talk a lot. Shier is trying to introduce us into how a company works, Nick is getting interested in art direction etc… I guess we’re all at this age now, where we don’t just want to skate for a brand but also be involved as well. So that’s going to be exciting in 2013.
What about your long-awaited pro debut?
That’s not my decision to make. I just try to do my thing.
As far as hype and future trends go, I could advise you guys to incorporate Street League’s instant scoring system to your boards. They could then load each trick’s score directly to instagram. Just saying…
Yeah, a device inside the board noting every trick and the most points qualify you to enter Street League – now you spoiled the whole secret… (laughing)
Okay, let’s move on then. I know, but looking at your minging frontside flips it’s not really obvious, that before moving to Berlin you’ve lived in Lyon for quite a while. That’s where your skating first blossomed. Do you miss Lyon? Or France for that matter?
Well, (taking a look out of the window at a snow-covered pavement) now I could go for a good ten degrees more on the thermometer. And, yeah, some of my friends from there I really don’t see enough of. At the same time I didn’t really feel that good skating in Lyon. So, it was a good decision to move somewhere else. However, it’s true, it was a big deal for me, meeting the Wall St. dudes and then the guys from Antiz. Every day they’d bring me to a spot to skate. They introduced me to the way skating works. And I could see a brand happening. I could see the guys, how they do it. You feel the spirit, go on little trips…
I think it could have happened, if Blueprint would not have happened.
Do you think you’d have grown into this long-haired, metal shirt-wearing, tattooed, rock’n’roll dude instead?
I was really fan of Love (Eneroth) back then. Then he was gone, so that would have been my opportunity to take this guy’s seat (laughing).
Speaking of seats. You don’t really sit at an office desk and work, do you? How do you occupy yourself on your downtime from skating?
I’ve been swimming a lot the last weeks. I play golf a bit and table tennis in the summer, [I] try to play pool in the winter… There was a little story: two years ago I had a surgery on my foot and I couldn’t skate for few months, so, I really wanted to get into playing pool. It got to the point where me, my roommate and a couple of friends started arguing about the rules. I even printed them out and brought them to the pool place, that’s how serious it was!
I can see you guys going mental about that stuff. Did you have the skills to back it though?
Not really. At the time maybe a little bit, but then I didn’t play the whole summer and that was it. I always tend to get really passionate about stuff. Same with golf: I got really amped on it, and then I went to LA and played Shier who hadn’t played for years and he kicked my ass! I have been getting back into playing pool this winter though, just this time much more relaxed, and chess too.
Other than that, yeah, I only skate. I don’t make a lot of money, just enough to get by here in Berlin, which really doesn’t take much compared to other cities. So far, it’s been really good that way.
When you first came, you said it was only going to be for half a year, right?
Actually, I said two months! But I think I was just lying to myself. I knew right then I wanted to stay longer but I was anxious about leaving. So, I just took two little bags, telling everyone in Lyon I’d be back soon. Steve (Forstner) did the same and we ended up moving in together. He was gone a lot, but he also paid the rent a lot! And I’m still grateful! We lived pretty far out though, so it was not that easy. But after a year relocated towards the Benches, so now it’s perfect. And I really like it in Berlin. Despite it getting super rinsed, and despite rising rents – even though it’s probably the best time to move somewhere else!
When my girlfriend, who’s from here, finishes with her studies, I could maybe picture myself moving to some other place with her for a while and then coming back. Or am I lying to myself again!? (laughing) Yeah, so in September we’ll be moving to Mongolia, living in a tent – I heard it’s cheap and getting trendy… (laughing)
Not at all. If you move to Berlin and are into partying or going out, then it can get hard to do anything, not just creating. There is just so much entertainment and distractions. But I’ve never been that much into any of that. For example, when I said yesterday, “Meet you at the bar,” I went home took a shower, turned my phone off and I was ready to go to bed. But then I felt this guilt, like, “ I don’t want to be that guy again,” turned it back on and went to Franken (bar). But yeah, I think I’m more the type for chilling. So ultimately, there is no problem for me being in Berlin.
Well, I heard some wild stories involving Snoop Dogg in LA after the Pretty Sweet premiere!?
I’ve decided not to talk about it anymore. It’s better to keep this memory in a nice place in the back of my head. Because every time you talk about something, the memory that’s stored in your brain gets altered. And I don’t want that to happen. I’ve been star-struck, it’s powerful! It lasted a couple of days, like a bad hangover. In 10 years I’ll probably say I used to hang around with him… (laughing)
Ok, back to Berlin then. I’d go as far as saying, for you the city works the other way, because spot-wise, you really have to be creative here!
Yeah, skating here definitely challenges you more than say Barcelona. But also, in general, people tend to say, “Oh, five years ago, everything was so much better!” But, in truth, hasn’t it always been that way? Maybe in twenty years people will look back and think, “2012 was so sick!” It’s always really subjective and relative to the now. And as for Berlin in particular: the prices may go up a bit, people might change slightly, but there is this spirit that if you want to do something, you go and do it. And that is in people’s minds, you can’t just take it away!
Sounds like ’Merica to me…
In a way it is a bit similar. In the sense of: not waiting for an institution to do stuff for you. Because, that’s how I grew up: if you wanted something, you have to go to the city council and apply for it. Here it works more liberal. Like just outside here for example: If people want to light their street for Christmas, the neighbours just go ahead and do it!
Yeah, I skate with him a lot and we get along quite well, but his take on skating is almost the opposite of mine. Still, it’s one more reason I disagree with that article. I don’t think you need to model skateboarding on tennis or any other sport in order to sell it. Everyone who really skates knows the value of creative skating, and that it touches more people than just the skaters. For example, one of the first videos I was really into was “Mosaic” and I could show it to my girlfriend at the time and she would be able to see the creative value in it. Of course she didn’t care much about the tricks, but for sure for the vibe, the motion and maybe the graphics. So in that respect, I really don’t believe, skateboarding needs to be turned into a sport!
Skateboarding to me is becoming more and more like music in a way. There are so many types of successful music. There is your pop music, your Lady Gaga or whatever, and then so many niches, independent stuff that gets peoples attention.
Yeah, exactly. On the one hand, the Street League stuff, the sport and the points, all of that is definitely happening. But for other reasons, I don’t think it’s all because of corporates wanting to rationalise and force it into becoming a sport. All the niches will stay independent. Who knows though, maybe in the long term there will be some skaters who only skate Street League. To me, as soon as you start putting numbers on skaters, as soon as you count points, the emotional facet is missing, and that’s an important part! Sure, I can watch Street League, I can watch all the contests; I can connect to it. But as soon as I step on my board, all of that has nothing in common with what I do. Also, what’s maybe more important in street skateboarding, and what most people don’t even realise is, that we skaters might be some of the last people who really use and take the public space. And it goes far beyond tricks or whatever. Like back in the Roman day, the forum was where everything happened. All of social life, politics, business… Today everyone is just going from A to B, everything else happens in the virtual world. You see, when people stop and watch us and get really stoked, I think they take notice, they see the political movement. I think they get stoked to see people using their surrounding to make something out of it. And it is a crazy power to do that, to have this knowledge. Imagine some filmer, say Josh Stewart, who spent years and years of his life in the streets. With all the knowledge he gathered, in politics he could be a consultant to some really important decisions on social city life…
Well, I guess though, the part of city life that skateboarding tends to be based in, usually doesn’t have too much lobby… Maybe if the world would come to an end, you know, Mayan calendar, if everything went Mad Max – then we could actually make use of that knowledge…
Actually, I was talking to Hold Tight (Henry) about this the other day and he was getting where I’m aiming at. He said he’d be really into digging into the topic. I could see that turning out really interesting! And it’s an experience you only get from street skating. Skateparks are a complete different story. We should be grateful to have it, we should cherish it. It’s a state of mind that let’s you see the world with different eyes. In the end, I don’t even know, what I intend to declare [by] saying this. I just want it to be printed (laughing).I think I just want people to think for a minute and ask themselves, “What am I doing when I go skate?!”