Tortoise’s John Herndon on Skate Rock, Tattooing, and His Latest Collab

Slowly but steadily, John Herndon’s art and music have had a huge impact on skateboarding

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Jan 17 2016, 1:00pm

Most people are largely unaware of the impact of skateboard video soundtracks. For many, hearing a song in a skate video becomes an entry point into entire worlds. Some would even say that they’ve watched their favorite video sections more than they’ve heard “She Loves You” or even “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because as skateboarders, we’re that obsessive. So, in speaking with drummer and multi-instrumentalist John Herndon, he politely laughed—and rightfully so—when I declared his band Tortoise “skate rock.” 

“For sure, we’re totally skate rock,” was his exact response.

But it’s not that far-fetched of a claim, as the genre itself, fostered by Morizen Foche aka MoFo during his tenure at Thrasher Magazine, was really just a categorical dump for a broad range of bands who rode skateboards. Thrash, surf, hardcore, melodic, funk, and even dub-dance rhythms all coalesced under the moniker and compilation albums released by the magazine. Did the herky jerky rhythms of the Big Boys sound anything like the Venice stomp of Suicidal Tendencies? Ungh! sounded like they should have been on DFA Records, a decade-plus before they existed.

20 years ago, Tortoise contributed several tracks to Stereo Skateboards’ second video, Tincan Folklore (1996), and just as Alien Workshop had done prior with Dinosaur Jr, the video was an introduction to many of the band. What’s significant is that the idea of post-rock, or whatever bucket you’d like to place Tortoise in, was a new direction in skateboarding, just as the band itself was a new fusion of ideas in American independent music. In 1990, the year Tortoise was founded, a group of musicians rooted in punk and indie rock, drifting off into Krautrock, jazz, dub, and experimental zones, was revolutionary and uncommon. 

Punk had faded and hip-hop had taken over as the sound of skateboarding. In many ways, the merger of sounds represented in Tortoise’s music, including jazz, which had comprised most of Stereo’s first video, showed the variety in skating and how almost any genre could intertwine with the lyrical nature of it. 

Seeing skateboarder Greg Hunt weave his way across the streets of San Francisco to Tortoise’s music, backed by Herndon’s beat, set a new pace and rhythm to skating—a far cry from the rapid fire paddle beats of hardcore punk. And for Hunt, now an accomplished skate video director and creator, the inclusion of Tortoise at the suggestion of Stereo co-founder Chris Pastras was influential to his body of work, including Vans’ first full length skate video Propeller, after his pro skate career ended. 

“I really dug the music right away—I hadn’t heard anything remotely like it before,” he said “I picked both the tracks for my part and sat in on the edit and put it together. That was my first time ever editing anything and I built the entire cut around the music. I still do it that way. I kept listening to Tortoise and only later did I realize how lucky we were to have used that music in the video. They’re just incredible songwriters and musicians.”

For many, skateboarding is an entry point to art and music. The vibrant board graphics and energetic sounds strike a chord in so many, sending them off into different paths. These paths are not always representative of that initial thunder, but rather that of using an artistic medium for self expression. The simple nature of skating can be the catalyst for creativity. 

“I got my first skateboard in 1974 and I always wonder, what came first? My love of drawing or for skateboarding, as they both came along at the same time,” Herndon said. “I was interested in drawing Marvel comic superheros and riding skateboards right at the same time. Later Thrasher came onto the scene and punk rock flyers—all that stuff was a bit later for me. I grew up in Western North Carolina and I was only really exposed to real punk rock and shows until about 1983. In high school I was really into Duane Peters and that whole Santa Cruz of scene with Steve Olson. I gravitated towards that, but those graphics were much more design based—checker boards across the whole deck with a logo. Even just the real simple first Christian Hosoi graphics or the simplicity of the Alva logo.”

For Henrdon, the ease of entry to those graphics was attractive to a young mind interested in art. The crude simplicity of punk rock logos or those early skate graphics were easy to recreate on any surface. The power, imprint, and accessibility of that visual language spoke to Herndon. “I remember taking magic markers and checkerboarding a pair of canvas Pumas when I was a kid—I didn’t have any Vans around, but I’d see them in the magazine, so I thought, ‘Oh shit! I’ll do that myself!’”

It’s obvious in looking at Herndon’s body of work that music was his calling. He’s contributed his percussion to The Poster Children, The For Carnation, 5ive Style, Isotope 217, Tortoise, as well as remixing, producing, and a wide range of side and solo projects. Chicago, where Tortoise was based, became synonymous with any of-the mostly instrumental bands critics were filing under post-rock. It was its own pocket of underground music, fit for scholarly publications like The Wire, not Thrasher, but that changed in 1996, as Tortoise released their second album Millions Now Living Will Never Die.

“We were asked to be a part of that (Stereo’s Tincan Folklore video) and that’s how I met Tommy Guerrero—he was a fan of Tortoise and a band I was in called 5ive Style.” Herndon said of appearing in the video’s soundtrack. “He asked if we could use those songs in a couple of videos. It was incredible to me to be part of something that was such a big part of what my roots are—a wonderful thing that made things make sense to me and connect some lines. It was cool to make that happen.”

Though it actually wasn’t the band’s first appearance in a skate video—ATM released one titled Come Together in 1995, which featured the track “Ry Cooder”—it was a highly anticipated follow up to Stereo’s debut, which came at a time when skateboarding’s identity needed to change. In the years prior, there was a burst of progression in street skating, that resembled Jackson Pollack painting over a Basquiat. It was impulsive, sporadic, spastic, colorful and haphazard, but unfortunately, not always visually appealing. Stereo’s focus was on execution and presentation, not going bigger or harder; the beauty and complexity of the simple. The sparsely complex notes of Tortoise’s tracks “Djed,” “Magnet Pulls Through,” and “Tin Cans And Twine,” perfectly soundtracked the next chapter of the brand. 

As a skater at that time into both all things Stereo and Tortoise, it made perfect sense, despite their scenes seeming so disparate, but in speaking to Herndon it was obvious and organic. I also found out that the origins of the band in circa ‘90s, had a surprising skate connection. 

“The first recordings that were ever available of Doug McCombs and playing together, were actually on an Alva video (Out of Focus 1990),” he said. “Some friends of mine were doing the editing on the video. Doug and I had just started playing together, coming up with the idea of Tortoise, but it hadn’t really started yet. The tracks were recorded in our rehearsal space and ended up on the video.”

Though he’s been involved in art throughout his tenure in Tortoise—it was his clever doodle that transformed a blank CDR into the album cover of their 1998 album T.N.T.—Herndon’s mostly been known as a musician. But about six years ago—and by his joking admission probably “too late”— he found a new mode of visual expression. 

Herndon was hooked and if that wasn’t enough, a bit later received a cosmic co-sign of his new passion. “I had this weird experience at Primavera Sound,” he told me. “I got into an elevator and I hear from the back of this super packed elevator, ‘Yo Herndon!’ I turn around and it was Liam Sparkes. I had never met him before, but we had mutual friends. I guess he had worked at Rough Trade and I had been there, asking if he could recommend some records and he remembered that. There was that kind of connection, but when that happened, I thought, “That’s a sign from the tattoo world—an affirmation! [laughs]”

Currently splitting time between tattooing in Los Angeles and Chicago, Herndon’s gearing up for the release of a new Tortoise album on January 22, titled The Catastrophist, with several live performances to follow. His illustrations have found their way to the bottom of skateboards, with a series of graphics illustrated for Antihero skateboards, thanks in part to a connection from artist and friend Todd Francis. 

He also recently released a capsule collection with The Quiet Life, featuring his flash-esque illustrations. I asked about the lucid nature of his work, swirling colors, icons, and slightly off images together in a swath of psychedelic punk.

“The subject material just comes from wherever—a lot of sketching and doodling and drawing forever in a sketchbook,” he said .”Drawing shitty, drawing bad, and just coming up with ideas. One shape in a drawing I see from someone else, can be inspiring to me to make an entirely new figure. My influences are all over the place.”

Currently at work on a new shirt design for his band, Herndon didn’t have any firm plans for his art work, other than to continue tattooing and building up his flash library. He was much more definitive when I asked which piece in the Quiet Life line, which ranges from embroidered chambray shirts to full on sweatsuits, was his favorite. He replied, “I really like the iron-on for the “Your Kiss is On My List” Lips, because it looks so weird and rugged."

To learn more about John Herndon, click here

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