Labour of love. In short, that’s the definition of what Adam Johnson has been doing for rollerblading for the past fifteen years and longer. Happy to live close to some of the most talented rollerbladers in the world, he’s helped them become what they are today through his lens and editing skills. In return, they helped him become probably the most influential rollerblading film auteur in the short history of our sport. That wouldn’t have happened without his own strong vision on what rollerblading was, is and should be. Now, he’s building a future for rollerblading with them.
AJ has seen a lot of people try and fail, and had his own share of failures. It’s only made him more determined to stick with his vision for blading, through Vibralux, Street Artist and DEAD Wheels.
Be-Mag got in touch with AJ, hoping to hear what’s next in store for DEAD after the very recent relaunch of the wheel brand and the addition of David Sizemore to the team.
Words by: Josip Jagić
Photography by: Shawn Engler
Sizemore is a fitting addition to the team, so congratulations on that. What happened to Dead that it made you guys go on a 2 year hiatus? And is now a good time for a comback?
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Josip. We took a 2 year break to figure out our own signature mold for the brand. We teamed up with an industrial designer out of New York, Kyle Sola, and addressed the specific needs of skaters that weren’t being met by some of the current wheels on the market. After 2 years we’ve developed not only this profile shaping, but a game plan moving forward for additional shapings and styles of wheels to bring to market. For Dead we plan on selling through production runs of wheels and flipping the profits into new profiles and products. We all decided up front to take equity in the brand and not release signature products. This keeps the brand growing more aggressively.
I think now is as good a time as any to make a comeback. Some skate brands have become complacent with their niche in the market and lots of fresh faces with wonderful ideas are emerging and shaking things up. We have a classic combination of talented skaters, an ownership group that has been there before and is familiar with the inner-workings and sales, a great media team, and a refreshing look at skating from an engineering standpoint.
From now on, what are your plans with Dead? Do you plan to expand the team?
Expansion of the team isn’t in the plans, we think 3 people is plenty to showcase the product. Looking at the brand from top to bottom we are striving to have the main focus be on the products and product quality / form / function. This is evident in the site, in our first ad campaigns. First thing you see when you come to the site are our wheels, this isn’t as much about marketing to skaters about how great our team is, as much as it is communicating that some of the best skaters in the world enjoy riding the best wheels. This is a wheel company first and everything else is secondary.
In 5-10 years we should be able to plug in anyone we choose to be a brand representative and still have the reputation as the best inline wheel on the market.
Do you feel that having such an ambitious time horizon is a challenge, even though you have proved you’re in it for the long haul?
I don’t think having a long timeline to drop products and fulfill the brands vision is a challenge. I think it’s refreshing. More people need to understand if they are going to come into the ‘business’ side of skating they need to do so with pure intentions. Intentions of building the community, building the next generation, furthering what we all love to do, and making a sustainable brand. Anything else is just a short sighted cash grab that benefits nobody and will ultimately leave the people involved jaded and broke. (laughs)
How hard is it to win over customers for wheels, with an aging rollerblading demographic?
I think a product centric company makes it easier to win over customers in an aging market. As people get older they care more about the details than they did as an impressionable young skater. I think people who have been around the block and still hold ‘wheel company X’ in high regards because they have always been the best, might be more prone to trying Dead wheels because there is thought behind the product, not just graphic design and marketing.
Lots of people are one wheel brand people, they fear change, and the only reason they fear change is because so often products are introduced our community that are busts. People step out of their tried and true comfort some and get burned to the tune of $35 or $300. It’s not a good look and they go running back to their security blanket.
This is one of the main reasons we spent so long on the re-brand and testing, we needed to make sure that our offering was substantial enough to not only win over people, but keep the people we win over.
When compared to other brands on the market, what does the new dead wheel feel like when skated?
I’m not really into comparisons to other brands. We are offering a quality urethane compound, bearing seat, and profile shaping that lends itself to stability, sharp turning, and great wear.
Are they fast?
Is it ok to say FAST AS FUCK in an interview on the internet?
Side note for the readers: bearing maintenance is as important as wheel maintenance. Take care of your bearings and rotate your wheels. Don’t drag your feet when you skate. In the past I’ve gotten some hilarious emails from skaters claiming defects on products and it was quite clear it was improper use of product.
With a lot of wheel companies testing and making large diameter wheels, how come you didn’t try and take a piece of action there? Do you think the larger wheel trend will stick?
As far as larger diameter wheels go, those weren’t really emerging as a force two years ago when we started picking up the pieces and moving forward.
Additionally the cost of a mold is $8k so paying in to what easily could have been a flash in the pan wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do with the companies money. I’ve personally been a part of several decisions that went wrong chasing trends. So, following trends too much bit you on the ass in the past. Would you like to talk about what you think were some past misjudgements on where rollerblading was going at the time?
Something I’ve personally struggled with is trying to make everyone happy and reading too much into the comments of haters.
With Vibralux after the release of the James Dean jean there was an apparent demand online for a more relaxed fitting jean. Even though the Regs were horrible looking and feeling, it was still a mistake to go off brand in the pursuit of sales.
After Charg!ng dropped I was really proud of what we had created and there were rumblings that people didn’t like all the ‘bullshit and party footage’ and wanted a straight skating video that focused on skating only which led to Pariah and another 6 months on the road. Not that Pariah was bad, just not exactly the vision I personally had.
With Dead we have all been focused since day one on creating a brand, staying on brand, and being about the brand. This is more than just ridiculous skaters and their current tastes. I think we have all learned from past experiences as well as outside brands we have worked with. Insight from Sola, Stahl, Engler, from brands they have represented and worked for also gives us a nice exterior influence from outside out industry.
We want people talking about how well the wheels perform, how much they enjoy skating the wheels, and recommend the wheels to friends. We don’t just want to be a company where people ooooh and awe over the sections of the guys or the edgy design of our tees. Those things are great to have, and we aren’t discounting the impact of design, the skaters, or photography, but the hierarchy is product / product development over everything else. Having what I believe is the complete package doesn’t hurt though.
So, apart from a new and developed product you put on the market now, what’s your next move with DEAD?
Not to be cryptic but I can’t really spill the beans on that without getting quartered and drawn. We are releasing a tee for back to school, hahahaha. In an attempt to not end up on the classic Be-mag ‘rollerblading product timeline’ we will keep playing things close to the chest. Nobody wants to make promises they can’t keep.
Smart move, I guess. Are Farmer and Broskow hard to work with in the company as partners as they are easy to film as skaters? How do you make business decisions?
(laughs) Holy shit. I’ve worked with Alex since as far back as I can remember. We have a brotherly relationship, it admittedly freaks out David sometimes. Same with Farm, we’ve been making parts and working with each other for 13 years. It has blown David’s mind a bit because the three of us know how to work with each other on all levels. Some days everything is the worst, and we stay out of each others way, or talk shit, or just lose our minds. Some days everything is going great and you would think we were all on vacation. It’s funny how finding a spot or getting something filmed can flip our moods instantly.
If it weren’t for the Dead, Vibralux and Street dudes it would be super hard to keep doing this on the business end. Regardless of the successes and failures we have as a group of brothers they are always there to prop me up and hopefully they feel the same way.
They say you should never start a company with a stranger. Doing so can easily create a toxic environment when things go wrong as you don’t have past experiences to fall back on and draw from. We have such a great history as friends that during the decision making process if there are disagreements it isn’t as disparaging as it might be if we weren’t all so close.
We all weigh in on things from a brand perspective, but we agree that certain people have more clout than others. We have skaters, a designer, an engineer, a photographer, and me for a reason. We all bring different experiences to the table, but we all have our own expertise. I defer on all video stuff to David, we defer on graphic design to Nicholas, profile shaping to Kyle, and photography to Shawn. We have suggestions, feedback, etc. but at the end of the day there are defined roles. -end