Blake Smith: Mr Volante

Blake is a rad photographer and the boss over at Volante wheels. He shares some NorCal stoke & history with us and some of his amazing photography. EnjoyBlake Lurkin
Hey bro, how are you doing?

Hey, doing good. It’s a cloudy day here in Oakland so I’m just hanging out at the house working on some photos. How you been livin?

Doing good thanks. Where are you from?
I grew up in a small town called Piedmont. It’s situated in the Oakland hills about 6 miles East of San Francisco. Northern California born and raised!

When did you start skating?
I think I got my first board for Christmas in the 4th grade so that had to be around 1999. It was a cheap plastic board but I loved it.

Where did you ride in the early days?
I first started out learning ollies in my garage. After a while I needed more space so we would go down to this one spot called The Vace. It had some benches and a 2 stair we would always grind. It was in front of the police station but they never bothered us – it was our own rad little spot.

Any skater cops?

When did you start skating bigger skateboards?
2004. My friend got a longboard that I would roll around on every so often. I would always see Noah, Patrick, and JM skating around my town on old pool boards with hard wheels. Soon after I got my own pool board so that was my first step into larger board and downhill skating. I got a longboard that same year and begun bombing hills on soft wheels.

Who are those 3 guys?
Noah Sakamoto, Patrick Rizzo,
and JM duran – Norcal OG’s.

Blue suit bombers!
You know it! Those guys were a big influence for me in the earlier days. They still are to this day.
Blake BBDH

How do they influence you?
Style is everything – those guys take skateboarding and make it art. They have an interesting approach to skateboarding that is very organic and rad to watch.

Who are the other OG’s in the area?
Cliff Coleman
of course. He’s still lurking around in Berkeley. Everyone else is under 21 so it’s hard to say. Darryl Freeman left his mark forsure. Byron is putting in some serious work these days. It’s one thing to see him skate in videos or in a race (which is undoubtedly impressive) but following him down a home run is always rad to watch.

What was your first downhill experience
I’d say my first true downhill experience was when my pops drove me and a car load of my friends to the top of Tunnel road. We drove up the backside so none of us saw the road before dropping it. Everyone made it down with huge smiles that day. We kept coming back.

Did you have a crew?
Haha yeah dude! We first called ourselves “the broalition” haha. That later turned into “Basic Crew”. The YouTube channel we made back in 2007 is still under “Basic Crew”.

Who is in it?
At its peak it was Justin Bryant, Nick Lee, Tom, Matt and Pete, Connery, myself, and a few other high-school buddies. Nick, Justin, and I got picked up by Comet Skateboards under the “Basic Crew” and kept riding after high school.

What’s tunnel road like?
It’s great for learning how to tuck and corner. The whole road that you skate is a few miles long and averages about 25 the whole way. There’s more curves than I can count.

What was your role in the crew?
We didn’t have roles really. It was just a group of skaters who were all rad people. There are some early Basiccrew tapes from 2007 but that was a collective project. We all filmed, edited, and worked together on it. I actually just found the DVD from our first video. It was 20 minutes long with 5 or 6 parts. We were fired up on it.

 Blake Smith photo
Blake Smith photo

Why did you make a video?
Why not? It was fun and something to do. What teenage skate rat kid doesn’t want to make a video.

What’s your local terrain like?
We’re spoiled with epic hills. The problem is everywhere has terrible pavement. It’s like lilly pad hopping skating in Berkeley – slide when you have the chance.

How do you make do with the sketchy pavement?
You just work with it. Kicktails are essential for skateboarding.

Is the community close?
Yeah we all kick it together. The Sunset Sliders have a really strong collective here in San Francisco. It’s like a big family, everyone is rad and stoked off each other.

Blake Smith photo
Blake Smith photo

That sounds like a bunch of ninjas.
We are Ninjas. We skate at night and are gone before you can call the cops.

Who are the sunset sliders?
We’re the raddest skate family on the planet! The group is about as diverse as it gets. It’s cool, everyone is bound by skateboarding, community growth, and rad times. Every Wednesday night we have Slider Sesh where we take the Slider’s bus out and skate the city all night. Honestly though, I can’t even begin to answer who the Sunset Sliders are, you have to spend some time with us and experience it.

Who is the mum/dad?
Everyone brings different talents to the table. Big Dave is a natural leader who opens up his home to the crew. Chad and Yvonne are the artists behind all the slider’s stickers shirts. AFB and Doug are ramp building machines! Daisy can take amazing photo’s and is putting many sliders on the map. Everyone can and will lurk harder than you.

Who is big Dave?
Hes’ just a dude who skates and crushes life where he can. You probably know him as the Team Manager at Caliber, and he also makes things happen in skateboarding.

When did you join the family?
When I got shades.

Do you make any art?
Yeah! I’m into whatever medium presents itself at the time. My job and passion is in Photography so I do that on a daily basis. I love it and the whole creative process behind making a photograph. I actually just launched my own photo website last week.
I’m fired up to start pushing personal projects through the blog and eventually put up some prints for sale.

How does skating inspire you creatively?
Skateboarding is the physical manifestation of the creative mind. It forces you to look at the ordinary and see it in a different light. I think photography and skateboarding have a lot in common in that sense. With photography, I look at the world with the same eye as I do in skateboarding. Nothing is finite, and expression can be created from anything.

What is the local scene like?
Like any other scene but we skate hard, make shit happen, and have a rad time. From what I’ve experienced, NorCal has a very tightly bound community where everyone is looking out and supporting each other.

Blake Smith photo
Blake Smith photo

Why is NorCal special?
If I told you, you wouldn’t even believe me.

What’s NorCal style?
Kick tail, shitty pavement, stand-up slides, pro lurking.

And T-Rex wrist?
Totally, if the corner calls for it.

How did you get injured?
I was on a Caliber trip down to Santa Barbara in December with the Sliders and PDX bus. I was doing an air in the bowl at the Ojai skatepark when I landed funny and my knee bent sideways. You can see the fall in the Caliber video from the trip. It looks relatively mellow but you see my knee tweaking! Well anyways, I tore my ALC and meniscus and had to get surgery mid January. It’s now November and I’m finally starting to roll around on my skate again.
Caliber Party

What’s your weapon of choice?
Shooting with a Canon 7D right now but I’m really itching to go full frame soon. My 12-24 has been my trusty lens for most of my film and photo work. I love my setup and finally feel like I have all the equipment I need (with exception of good lighting).
I recently got a little Fuji x100s Mirrorless camera for walking around. It’s been an amazing tool for just getting out a shooting.

What do you aim to capture with your photography?
It really depends on the shot, location, and skater. Sometimes I like to focus on the moment. Not just the skating but also the scenery involved in what’s going on. Everything is subject to the environment, lighting, road style, pavement, vistas, lines etc. You can draw the skater’s approach to a line based on how the surrounding environment plays with the road itself. Everything is full circle, and it’s a challenge to capture that.
Above all though, its about getting to the gnarliest spot and making rad skateboarding happen. The camera is an excuse to get out and do it.

Blake Smith Photo
Blake Smith Photo

Do you have a favourite photographer?
I’m from a generation where we’re saturated with digital media. Honestly I get a lot of my influence from flickr and 500px. I’ll also look through the skate and snowboard magazines and watch how each shot is set up and lit. I study that and learn. I like to look towards fine art photography for it’s simplicity. I think there’s something inherently difficult in minimalist photography and it’s something I’ve always been attracted to.

Ryan Allan has some amazing photographs that have had a lasting effect on me. It’s cool to watch his approach and how it can be applied to downhill.

It’s been good working with Caliber because I get a lot of one on one time with Dustin Damron. His influence has certainly rubbed off on me over the last few years. Huey continues to kill it and always has. Aaron Breetwor’s recent work is top notch. I’m stoked to see what he and the DGM guys produce next year.

What’s your favourite skate mag?
Thrasher is pretty rad. Wheelbase mag has been pumping out some A+ content lately too.

What do you ride?
My current setup is a Comet Sakamoto with Calibers and Volante mini-checkers.

Are any of those your sponsors?
Yeah I ride for Caliber, Comet, and Volante.

When did you first get sponsored?
I got on Comet back in 2008 when I sent in a “sponsor me” email on a slow summer day. Jason Salfi (owner of Comet) hit me back that afternoon requesting a video the next week. Justin, Nick, and I hustled all week to put together an edit and we ended up getting put on the team. I’ve been with Caliber since day one. It’s been a trip watching the company grow and become successful. Couldn’t be more stoked to have been a part of that. Volante is more my brain-child and a collective project between Comet and Caliber. I’m the Brand Manager at Volante so it’s more sponsored by affiliation.

Why did you want to join Comet?
Comet’s roots run deep in Norcal. I’ve always loved the brand and how they present themselves. The dudes being Comet are true skaters and genuine people. I wouldn’t want to represent any other company out right now.

I thought comet was based in NY?
They are now. Back in the early 2000’s and late 90’s Comet was based out of the San Francisco bay area.

What was your role in Caliber when you first joined?
I was a rider and Team Manager. Brandon gave me the task to build the team so I picked the dudes from Norcal who were crushing. Liam Morgan was already on and so was Aaron Baygell. We soon brought in Nick Ronzani and Aaron Grulich. They were a natural fit onto the team and are still killing it!

Liam and James - Blake Smith photo
Liam and James – Blake Smith photo

What do you look for in team riders?
All our riders can hang on and off the board. Style is the most important. If the trick doesn’t look good, then it doesn’t count.

How have you helped Caliber grow since 2010? When you joined.
I started doing a lot of video work and travelling for them on the team. I’m still in the mix helping with product development and soon to be back shredding hard for them.

What’s the best video you’ve made?
Haha that’s a good question. Each has its own feel to it, which is representative of that moment or period in time. If I had to choose one on replayability, Metaphysical is a go-to for me.

What’s special about ‘’Alpine Routes’’?
Alpine Routes was a special project for me. Since I first visited and skated that region back in 2008, I knew that I wanted to work on a more involved project out there. In a sense it was the culmination of a 5 year long idea I had been dreaming of. We finally had the right crew to make it happen and the stars aligned on timing with everyone being around then. I couldn’t be more stoked on how it came out, and that there’s more to be had out there. We’re already planning our next trip!

How was Volante born?
Volante was born when I was tired of regular jobs in college and went to Brandon and Jason about starting a wheel company. Everyone was stoked on the preliminary ideas and it became official when Brandon, Dusty, and I went to visit Jason in New York several moons ago.

Is she the love child of Caliber and Comet?
You could say that. Volante is and will always be its own company so I you can say we’ve moved out of our parents house by now.

How does Volante differ from other wheel companies?
Well first we have the raddest team out there! That’s what makes us, us. Jensen, Tissen, Morgan, Nunez, Garner, AFB, Boar, Radzani, Tannaci, Choy, Salfi, Stewart, Damron, everyone involved brings their own fire to the brand. We’re different because our lineup reflects the creative input of all these people. You can only get the Volante flavor with this cast of characters. Everyone has their own taste, we have ours.

AFB - Blake Smith photo
AFB – Blake Smith photo

What was the hardest thing about setting up a small business?

What was your initial dream for Volante?
I’m watching the dream play out now. For the most part, it’s in line with the initial concepts we had for the brand. I’m hoping to start bringing in more outside artists and focus in on other rad occurrences both in and outside of skateboarding.

Where do you see Volante Wheels in 3 years?
Bombing hills around the world.

Blake Smith photo
Blake Smith photo

How has it grown since it’s inception?
We’ve had many hurdles to jump over to get to where we are now but I‘m stoked to finally be able to say we’re in a comfortable spot. We focus on day-to-day and try to never lose sight of the big picture. Bringing in new team rider’s always helps strengthen the growth. I’d say just our team and wheel lineup are showing of our growth. Being able to go on more team trips and have the resources to provide more for the riders is always first and foremost. It’s good to see where we are now after our humble launch with just the Checker wheel and 2 or 3 dudes heading the team.

What do you look for in prospective team members?
Most of the riders have been people who naturally starting hanging out and skating with the crew. It’s been a gradual progression bringing each rider on board. We haven’t really focused on specific traits but more an all around ability and presence. You’ll see most of our riders kill it on the hill and and a skate park. I’m down with the whole skate everything thing.

Are we going to see any international riders on team Volante?
Yeah if the right person comes along, I’m into it.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Looking for a brick and mortar in the East Bay.

What do you do when you’re not skating?
On a regular day I’m trying to make photos or go spend time in the mountains. Both at the same time is always rad.

Blake Smith photo
Blake Smith photo

Pick 3 numbers between 1-12
4.28, 1.989, and 1

4.28 – What’s your party trick?
I make beer disappear.

1.989  – what weapons would you choose in a zombie apocalypse?
Sniper, and a boat then go sail myself to some uninhabited tropical island.

1 – If you had to be a bad guy in a movie, who would you be?
I can’t even remember the last movie I’ve watched.

It’s been really fun getting to know you over the course of this interview. Thanks for sharing. All the best with Volante!
Thanks for you time Gbemi!

Any last words?
Shout out to my sponsors and everyone involved in making radness happen:

Comet Skateboards // Volante Wheels // Caliber Truck Co. // The Lurkeley crew // Sunset Sliders