Steve Caballero is one of the biggest names in professional skateboarding. He turned pro in 1980 at the age of 15 and has competed in (and won) almost every major competition since then. His signature Vans shoe, the Halfcab has been around for longer than I have and he's featured as a playable character in five of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games. No big deal.
Aside from all that he's also played in several punk bands and even opened for Suicidal Tendencies. I caught up with him at the first UK Vans Warped Tour in over 10 years to talk about skating, punk and how becoming a father has changed his views on having a potty-mouth in songs.
So, you got two days ago. Have you been to London before?
I've been a few times. I came in 1988, that was a cool trip. I met George Harrison and he invited me out to his castle in the country for diner.
No way! What was George like?
He was really nice, really down to earth. We met his son, Danny, who was 10 at the time and the next day we were doing a show and George, his wife and Danny all came to watch the show.
That's amazing, so the early 80s must've been a great time to come to London if you were into the punk scene?
Yeah it was cool. The first thing I wanted to do when I came to london was to go to Kings Road to get a pair of creepers. Creepers were pretty big in the states. All the punk bands were wearing them, that was the look then and they didn't really sell them in the states so when I came over here that was the first thing I wanted to do. They were the perfect shoes for me because they made me look taller.
Bizarrely, creepers are actually pretty popular again.
Really? That's cool, I'll have to start wearing them again!
Your going to be demoing later today on a massive half pipe, how do you prepare before something like this?
I just freestyle it. It really depends on the ramp or the course. Normally we get a day to get used to the course so we can put on a good show. The ramp here's good. It's like 13 feet high, it's huge!
You've been professional since 1980, how's skating changed over the years?
We grew up in the 80s and the ramps were a lot smaller, these days the ramps are much, much bigger in height and it's a different pump, a different flow so it's hard for us to make that transition because we're used to skating such quicker courses but we make do, we learn to adapt. It just takes time.
When you do shows in front of huge crowds, does the pressure ever get to you?
Well there's definitely a lot of pressure when you show up a new place and there's thousands of people watching you. You have to get used to a new ramp. It looks like you can't skate because you're trying to get used to it. So I have to do what I can to adapt as fast as possible, I try and put on the best show I can and try not to think too much about the crowd. But the fact that I'm still skating at my age, I just turned 48, I think it's a huge bonus. It keeps me going, the fact I can still do it and I'm not just living off what I did in the 80s.
You turned pro at a very young age?
Yeah, I was 15.
That must've been amazing.
Sure it was cool but back then It was kind of the normal thing. It was all about the competitions and you would determine your worth by how you ranked. So if you were a top amateur, the next step was to turn pro. In the late 70s I dominated the amateur scene in northern California. Then I made the move to southern California and I started dominating there. Once I'd been top of the amateurs for about a year and a half, I was ready to turn pro. I knew I was ready because back in the day we did contests called pro-ams and if you were an amateur you could compete in pro competitions as long as you didn't take the money. As soon as you took the money you were immediately pro. Somewhere along the line that changed and amateurs today can win money and still claim they're amateur, which is ridiculous to me, I don't get it.
How did that change come about?
Someone just decided 'this is what we're going to do' and it just changed. It's kind of changed the model of what it means to be pro. It'd really diluted the professional aspect of skating.
Do you think it was to encourage more people to compete at a professional level?
I think a lot of people don't understand that they're not prepared to be a pro because they don't go through the amateur rankings and the responsibilities of being an amateur.
How long have you been with Vans for?
I've been with vans since 1988. We've been very loyal to each other! They're one of my major sponsors now because shoes sell a lot more than boards and I've had a signature shoe with them since 1989. I stared with the first one in 1995. I stayed with it for 10 years. After 10 years I was kind of over it. It grew super big and it wasn't such a close-knit family anymore, it became this huge festival. I didn't really care for the bands anymore.
So, how come skating and punk rock are so intrinsically linked?
It's the do-it-yourself attitude. The rawness of the music and the aggression.
Like, identifying with being an outsider?
It's on a non-corporate but very creative level where you're doing something because you love it not because everyone else is doing it and the punk rock movement shared that ethos. Punk was about doing it from the heart, it didn't matter if you were polished or if you could play that well.
What other music do you like?
I went from punk into new wave and then metal and the grunge scene. I even listen some reggae. When it comes to music, i've always been in love with it. Even before I got on a skateboard I listened to a lot of soul and RnB, I even listened to a lot of disco in the 70s. The one thing I never connected with that much was hip-hop. I liked Run DMC and Beastie Boys when they came out but I don't really listen to that stuff anymore.
And what CDs would you bring on a road trip?
I'd bring Pennywise, The Offspring, No Use For a Name, Bodyjar and then some older ones like Agent Orange, The Adolescents, Social Distortion.
So do you rate British or American punk higher?
Well I got into punk rock through British bands, bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and Cockney Rejects. So I guess my interest in punk was formed from British punk but I listen to a lot of American bands as well.
All the old punk bands had very clear political messages, modern punk has lost a lot of that, do you think that punk music has lost it's heart?
To me, I wasn't so much into the movement as I was with the music. So a lot of the old punk bands I didn't really care that much about what they were saying, I was more into the tone of it.
What do you think of rock stars with clear political agendas?
I think they have a voice and that being in a band is a good place to speak out from. I think if you're a good songwriter you should use your gift to speak out about how you feel, like poetry. So I think it's important and sometimes I might not agree with what they're saying but I might like the song.To tell you the truth I really didn't listen to lyrics all that much until I became a Christian. I got into a lot of Christian hip-hop and I got really into the lyrics because they had something to say. Then from getting into that and really listening to lyrics I went back to the stuff I listened to before because I liked the music and I would listen to what they were saying and then that would make me not want to listen to that song anymore. I'm very conscious of lyrics these days.
So you found that your faith changed the bands you identify with?
It definitely changed! There's a lot of bands that I'm very torn with because I love their songs but I just can't bring myself to play it, especially it there's a lot of cussin' in it. Back before I was a Christian I didn't care but now I do, especially when I have kids, I don't want to be blasting that kind of stuff with my 2 and 5 year old there. I just thought to myself, if I don't feel right playing it with them there then why's it ok to make other people listen to it.
Have you had to talk to your kids about swearing in songs, like, explain what the words mean?
There's that song “I Want To Be A Billionaire” and my daughter's really into it, it's really catchy, which is annoying, as it'd be a great song if they just took the F-bomb out of it. My daughter puts it on when we're in the car with my 2 and 5 year old and I have to be like “heeeey, what you doing.” I know they're going to hear that stuff eventually but I think my role as a parent is to make sure they don't hear it from me.
You've hung out with a lot of bands in your time, are there any you really like as people?
I've recently become friends with the guys in Metallica. We did a collaboration shoot for the Halfcab. James is a really down to earth guy, he cares a lot about his fans. He's a cool dude and he's gone through a lot. When I saw Some Kind of Monster I couldn't believe that even a band as big as Metallica goes through the same issues as every band goes through, the same egos, the same drama, i've experienced all the same problems in my bands.
You've also played in A LOT of bands…
Yeah, the first band I was in was The Faction from 1982 to 85. We had three albums and two 45's, we toured the US twice. We played with a lot of famous bands, The Exploited, Social Distortion, Suicidal Tendencies.
Those are some pretty hardcore gigs!
Yeah those were crazy days! We even opened up for Samhain! [laughs] It was pretty cool but after a while we got on a mellower tip and I formed a band called Odd Man Out. I was listening to a lot of The Cure and U2 so it was a bit of a step away from punk rock. Then after a few years I joined Shovelhead, and that was during the whole grunge scene, so we sounded like Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden. But I was still a punk at heart so in 95 I formed Soda. It was a melodic punk rock band and we got a female singer. We only lasted about a year though due to internal drama…
What was the drama?
The female singer [Laughs] she just ruined everything.
Was she a bit of a diva?
She had a bit of an ego and she started dating a few of the guys in the band, which was a big no-no. Far too much drama. Now I've got together with Agent Orange and I'm playing rhythm guitar for them.
So what gives you the bigger rush, skating or performing?
It's a different buzz but it sort of has the same feel. When you do a good run and you pop out and everyone cheers, it's the same as when you've just finished a killer song, you get that roar of the crowd.
Which do you prefer?
Well my hearts always in skating but when you're playing live you don't have that fear of hanging up and slamming. The only fear you've got is breaking a string or hitting a wrong note but skating is putting your life on the line every time you drop in. So it's a bit more relaxing playing in a band.
You must get nervous before you go on stage though?
I was nervous playing with Agent Orange. They've never had a fourth member, they've been a 3 piece since the early 80s. So I was really nervous about messing up their sound. The first gig I played with them they were like “hey lets play this song by the Dead Kennedys and I'm like “dude we didn't even practise that song.” So I'm like playing this song for the first time in front of all these people. That's pressure right there.
How did it go?
It went good, It's a fun song to play once you know it!
Sweet. Thanks Steve!
For more on Vans' Warped Tour visit www.vans.co.uk