There are interviews that take much more than a couple emails back and forth, a handful of questions and some decent blade shots. There are interviews that will put a friendship to the test, that will require asking uneasy questions and take months to complete.
There are interviews that start with a quick check in with Revolution owner James Johnson, and end up as a full-length, in-depth feature. From a brief inquiry about the recent website relaunch & undergoing team video filming process, there are interviews that evolve into a full perspective of what is like to run a blade shop for over 10 years, and what it takes to stay in business in a declining industry.
There are interviews that simply put hard work and dedication in the lime light. Today I am proud to present to you such an interview, with blader, shop owner, husband and father: my good friend, James Johnson.
Interview: Freddy White Photography: Ian Tetzner, Chris Haffey, Casey McFarland, Steve Steinmetz
You launched the new Revolution website a few weeks ago, how long did it take to complete, and who was involved in the project?
I’m hyped on the new Revolution website, I did it all myself in 4 days. Haha, a lot of people don’t know, but Revolution is pretty much a one man show. I handle everything. Since the beginning, I’ve taught myself how to use Photoshop, web design, everything I needed to learn to make it work, I did it. But, I’m really excited about the fresh look, we’re able to portray rollerblading the best way possible through it. I’m inspired.
Back to the origins of the shop, how did it all started for Revolution, and why did you move from Alaska to Arizona to open its storefront?
I remember the morning in Alaska when I made the decision to make the move to Arizona to open it, take a blind leap of faith. We went for it, and made it happen. I had a dream for Revolution to create a solid storefront selling strictly aggressive inline, and build a skate scene around it. We did. It wasn’t easy, I chose to leave everything I grew up around, my family, friends, etc. to pursue this dream. We sacrificed a lot for it. It’s funny, when we first moved to Arizona, Gretchen and I had this small one room apartment a block away from the shop. Kato from Remz came out to Arizona to check it out. That was special because he was the person who inspired me years ago to open Revolution when he was selling Remz himself. He set the standard for being real skater owned, I wanted to do the same for Revolution. But, anyways, he came to the shop, we had a big flat screen TV for the skaters there to watch vids. He was impressed with the layout and the look. Then we took him back to our apartment, and we had this small little TV. Kato looked at that and goes – “You have the big super nice TV at the shop – then this little thing at your place? I like that.” It wasn’t a conscious decision, we always put everything into Revolution. We made a lot of sacrifices for it. Like Gretchen and I didn’t have a big wedding when we got married, her Grandma left her money to have one, but she used that money to bring in skate lines when we first started. But the move worked out for us. Our storefront was amazing. Our local skate scene thrived, we had numerous pro tours come through, video premieres, it was really special. We had skaters from all over the world come to Revolution, just to see it. We loved seeing skater’s expressions coming through our door, seeing a real skate shop, you could see it on their face, they were “home.”
What were the growing factors that eventually pushed you to close it down and centralize your activities through an internet store then?
The storefront was great, but also came with a very high price tag. At the time, we were making good money, so we didn’t think twice about it. I remember our good friend from Colorado Justin Barr said, “what makes Revolution so special is the real storefront, and unfortunately, that is also what is going to kill them in the end.” In 2008, when the Economy started to tank, the industry also rapidly declined along with it. The skate formula did not work anymore, skaters could not afford to purchase new skates every 3-4 months, and skate numbers started to decline. You couldn’t blame the skaters, they were working to hold down their jobs, and pay the bills. No one knew really how bad it would get. Companies were held in this phase of uncertainty, soon nothing was guaranteed to sell. This started a backlash in our industry when pros started to see their paychecks get cut lower and lower. A lot of travelling budgets ended, no more tours, no one could afford to do the things we were accustomed to. It was all relative, we started losing skaters, skate companies started selling less and less, then they couldn’t afford to pay their pros. More and more skaters started to quit. Since rollerblading doesn’t have any main stream exposure, we had no way of showcasing it to the younger generation. This was a serious problem. I remember I setup an industry meeting in Detroit at the BCSD, I told everyone we are losing skaters, most are going to fall out of this, and we have no younger kids coming in. How do we fix this?
Soon after, our industry really went downhill. No one knew when we would hit rock bottom. For Revolution, we had a lot of bills, the storefront was always the biggest. It was more than our house payment, probably almost double. I also believed in supporting a lot of the rollerblade media outlets, I believed so strongly that they portrayed rollerblading well, and we needed to do everything possible to keep that outlet going. I believed it would bring in new skaters. That was a high price tag, those ads were thousands of dollars for each one, literally. We gave a lot. We all kept hoping things would change, if we held on through the storm, we’ll come out OK. Thinking to ourselves, “it’s going to come back up, just another couple months.” But, it didn’t. When we started, I was able to support Gretchen completely through it, we bought a house, lived somewhat comfortably, and were able to travel a lot. Soon after the decline started, I found myself not being able to take a paycheck. I went years without taking one. Gretchen started working 2 jobs so we would have an income, we had really long stressful days. Struggling is probably an understatement. It was very stressful on us both of us, we joke now how cliche it is, but we literally had top ramen days. That’s all we could afford to eat. But, we always had hope for change. Gretchen also never gave up on me, she never quit on my dream. I am very thankful for that. Most girls would have bounced easy, gone. But, she stuck by me. She stuck by rollerblading.
Our storefront was amazing, it was difficult to let go of for sure. I worked there 6 days a week for 5 years straight. No days off, no sick days. We were dedicated for sure. A few variables went into closing it. The main one was the decline of our industry, it didn’t make sense anymore to keep that overhead bill when there were less and less skaters around. That is something we could not control, we accepted that this is the way our industry is going to be, it’s going to be small. Our lease was up, and we chose not to renew it. As much as I wanted to keep it open for skaters, we couldn’t do it anymore. It would completely kill us.
After fighting to keep the storefront open all these years, when was the crucial moment you made the decision?
One morning, the Strange Creatures were at my house in Arizona during a filming trip for their video. Broskow, Amir, Dean, the Brierley‘s, Langel were all downstairs having breakfast when Gretchen called me upstairs. I ran up, and she said I need to tell you something, “I’m pregnant.” That seriously put a lot of things in perspective. One second I’m figuring out the spot list for the day, then the next moment I find out I’m going to be a father. It wasn’t about me anymore or my crap, it became all about my son, Elias. Gretchen has sacrificed a lot for blading, and it was my turn to help her out. She has a really good job at Chandler Regional Hospital that provides a stable income, and health insurance. That is really important, so I told her, I’ll step back from the storefront, and focus on being a dad and be at home to take care of Elias and she can keep her job. The timing was right, our lease was up anyways, so I said, let’s close the storefont, and I’ll focus Revolution to be completely online. It made sense.
For years we felt like what did we do to deserve this hardship from the shop, but we figured at least we can have a son that is healthy and we can be thankful for that. The one thing that can work for us. Well, when our son Elias was born, we found out he was born with a life threatening genetic disorder called Cystic Fibrosis. It affects his lungs and digestive system, you can learn more about CF at www.cff.org. The average life expectancy of people with CF is 39 years old, that news was really heart breaking for Gretch and I to hear. I hadn’t ever cried in front of Gretchen until that day he was diagnosed. However treatments are progressing, and people with CF are living longer, full lives. He requires 3 breathing treatments each day, and medicine before each meal. It’s all preventative treatment. It’s a lot of care everyday for him, but we don’t know any different, it’s something we’ve been doing since he was 2 weeks old. In a month, he’s going to be 3! We’re blessed with him, he’s not showing any symptoms from his condition, and he’s healthy. Elias’s team of doctors at Phoenix Children’s Hospital are amazing. I always mention them in interviews, and they actually keep up with skating too. I’m a huge advocate for raising awareness about CF. I’m able to provide the care my son Elias needs, and still run Revolution at the same time. I feel like everything happened the way it should. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Your focus on the shop has changed, but did all this affect the overall Revolution philosophy, and the values you stand for?
Our focus for Revolution has changed because of all these things we’ve gone through. I see Revolution standing for something larger than just a skate shop, my focus is not on making money, it’s larger than that, it is about keeping rollerblading alive. We are rollerblading, I love all aspects of it. It is my life. I am doing it to give people hope, to show them I’m not going to give up on it ever. I am thankful that I have the strength to get through it all. The saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger holds pretty true for us. Certain things we deal with would completely crush most people, but for Gretch and I we buck up, and keep moving forward. We don’t quit.
What is funny is 2 years ago I was approached by a serious business man who runs chains of storefronts specializing in rollerskates, fitness, hockey, speed, ice skating, everything. He is super successful, I could tell by his pitch he is. He was looking to expand into Arizona and knew Revolution was a big part of skating here. He wanted to possibly join Revolution, create a big storefront, and bring in the rollerskates, fitness, speed, all that and also have “aggressive” be a part of it too. He said I could run it, make all this money, build his empire even more. I turned him down on the spot, I don’t think he hears ‘No” too often. Nothing against all those other sports but my heart is into my type of blading. Most people would do whatever they could for the money, not me. I have a soul. I have heart. I told Mathieu Ledoux about our meeting beforehand, he told me to hear him out. I called him after and told him I turned it down – he said, “I knew you would.” I am going to hold true to what I believe in. My point is, Revolution is strictly a core rollerblade shop, we believe in skating, we stand beside skaters, and we are not going to give up on our industry. Storefront or not, Revolution is dedicated to pushing what we all love to do, skate. Now you know what it means to us when we say – We are “real skater owned.”
Either through a physical or online shop, Revolution always had a huge impact on the scene indeed, and brought many pro tours through Arizona as well. Why is that, and how did you make that happen?
Like I said before, Revolution was a home for everyone. We have always felt that we are more than just a skate shop. We are real skater owned, meaning rollerblading is our life, we live it. It really wasn’t something we pursued, it was more organic. Skaters would come through Arizona, have a great time, and word spread. More and more people came through, and we always welcomed everyone. I’d direct crews to skate spots during the day, then head out at night to session one of our concrete parks with skaters, pretty much everything blade related that made it feel like a “community.” I’m there for them. People were drawn to that be it a pro team tour, or a skater flying from overseas just to skate in Arizona, it’s all the same. We are no different than they are, we’re all skaters. Our industry is small, but, we’re all in this together, we all share the same passion. When you see another skater, you share that connection. You’re instantly friends, I think that is one of the best things about our blading.
On the same topic, Adam Johnson and the Chris’s were just in Phoenix filming for the next Vibralux VOD’s. How did that go, and what would you say we can expect from both these guys’ sections?
I’m 100% behind the whole VOD movement in blading. Major skate companies are struggling, they cannot afford to pay their pro riders the big pay checks anymore. It’s all relative with the decline of numbers in our industry. We don’t have enough skaters to sustain healthy salaries anymore. So, with that said, if pro riders can go out and release a section and make some decent money to help support them, then that is an amazing thing. I have enormous respect for AJ, he’s driven circles around the US for the past decade, he’s sacrificed a lot to making rollerblading look good. His history and reputation precede him but, one day we were driving past a spot on Camelback Road, it’s a blue square down kink c-rail that Billy Lannom did back in the day. Billy back royaled that piece, through the kink and all. There’s a lot of historical spots around Arizona, but everytime we pass that one, we always point it out. No one will ever touch it again. We drove past it, and I pointed it out for Farmer and Chris to see. Then AJ calmly said, “I filmed that.” Man, AJ has seen a lot of sh*t go down, he’s in the streets for sure. AJ is a legend.
So, when he hit me up saying Haffey and Farmer are coming out to Arizona to film for their VOD, and asked me to “tour guide” them to spots, I was down. We hit it hard for 3 days, a lot of ditch stuff for sure. I saw Farmer one up one of my tricks at one of my favorite spots in AZ, and Haffey lace probably the biggest trick I’ve ever seen done, those guys are killers. Haffey and Farmer are some of the most gnarly street skaters in the world, I have huge respect for them, every skater does. They are true professionals, not just tricks, but being able to put in a full day of skating, take the falls, spend time in the car, step up to spots, then wake up sore the next day and do it all over again. Jon Jenkins and I would say skaters “wear their tricks” – meaning you can see the hell they put themselves through to get to where they are at. It’s no different with them, what they are capable of doing on blades is unreal. I was also hyped to get that switch mute in the bank photo by Haffey. I’ve done that a dozen times now, and basically wanted a long lens zoom shot by AJ of it for my section. Haffey snapped a pic, he nailed it too, so I wanted it to be in this interview for people to see. Not much he can’t do I guess.
We’ve had many talks in the past discussing the idea of an “organic growth” which is central for the future development of blading as a whole. Do you still believe in that concept, and if so, could you maybe explain it a bit more in details to our readers?
I absolutely believe in that concept. Blading is in our own hands, we, as skaters, are in control of our future. There is no over night miracle that is going to save blading, we are not going to be back in the X-Games anytime soon, we are not going to magically appear on TV. So, we have to take the initiative to step up and make a difference. I’m not waiting for that miracle, I’m going to get out there and make a difference. The whole problem with our industry is our numbers. Skaters are getting older and falling out of skating, and we have no new kids coming in. Our industry is struggling because we are trying to sell products to skaters in our “little circle.” We need to find a way to keep skaters involved and bring in new kids. It takes effort, it takes time, and dedication. This year marks our 8 year anniversary for the Revolution Thursday Night Skate. For 8 Years, every Thursday, we have held a session for skaters here in Arizona. That is crazy to think about, but I like to lead by example to inspire others to do the same for blading. You can rely on me, I’m not giving up on blading. I’ve seen other skaters step up and do the same by setting up weekly sessions in their home town, it’s about keeping skaters involved. Everyone who puts on blades is vital to keep involved, young or old, we’re all the same. Blading is ours, it’s in our hands, we have to make the difference ourselves.
Things have been a little quiet recently around Fester. What is your involvement with the wheel company, and how are things going for the brand these days? New projects in the works?
For those that don’t know, I co-own Fester Wheels with Damien Wilson and Joey Chase. I have been involved since the beginning, but, after a year or so of being behind the scenes, Mathieu Ledoux gave me his shares of the company as a gift. I do all the web updates for Fester, handle the distribution, and day to day operations. I relaunched a new Fester Wheels website this year – www.festerwheels.com. But, right now, with the industry being how it is, sales for everyone are bad, we are being really careful. We carry a high standard of quality for Fester, we use the highest quality of urethane available at our manufacturer. Fester Wheels last, you can skate them hard, and they’ll hold up. On the urethane end, we are currently testing some new sizes, wheel profiles, and shapes, gearing up for a new Spring release. We are also going to make Fester bearings, I’ve been testing different bearings for the past 8 months. I’m hyped, we want a bearing that can handle street skating, ride through dirt, take some impacts and keep going. I put my test samples through the ringer, and so far, they are holding up great. We felt that bearings have been lacking in our industry. It kills me to see rollerbladers skate Bones skateboard bearings, seeing those sold in “blade shops” to rollerbladers. It’s misleading to have a new rollerblader buy these blindly. Having them support a brand that does NOTHING to promote/support rollerblading. Why support an industry that doesn’t care what you’re doing? Keep money in rollerblading, support real brands who are run by bladers. Fester Wheels is run by rollerbladers for rollerbladers.
It seems like there’s a lot of time and effort put into filming the first Revolution team video as we speak, what’s the state of the project right now?
“Filming in Progress”… I told the team to take their time and film for the video. A lot of them have sponsor obligations, and I understand you need to keep up with promotion. These days sponsored skaters have a lot of expectations on them, especially with the way media is so instant with online edits. I get that. So, I told them to keep filming, keep a folder going for Revolution. When you have to start scrolling to get through the folder, and you start forgetting tricks you have, then I think it’ll be time to get things on a timeline. But right now, we’re just filming, getting out in the streets, spending a lot of time in the car, doing tricks with no warm up, planning tricks in different states, getting kicked out of spots, lacing tricks, eating sh*t, and going to bed bleeding and bruised. Then waking up and doing it all over again. It’s the process we are in right now.
Who’s involved in the video at this point, be it the blading cast, or the filming/editing crew? How will it be released, and is there an estimated deadline?
It’s hard to put out solid details right now. I’m hyped on Keaton, and Joey. Keaton tells me how hyped he is to film for it. Would like to see him come through with a banger. But, here in Arizona, I skate the most with Casey. He always stacks footage fast, I don’t know exactly what we have, we have never sat down and gone over everything yet. I almost don’t really want to, I think it’s better to get what you get, and then move onto the next. Always look forward. I’ll praise my filmer Ian Tetzner though, he came on board this year and he’s so sick. The first time we went out, he played back the clip, and Casey and I were like whaaaaaat, Ian is on it. I told him today that he makes us look better than we are, that’s the mark of a good filmer.
The original title “Decade” has been changed to “Die Trying”, which has been a Revolution slogan for a while. Why the change, and what do these words mean for you personally, and for blading as a whole?
“Die Trying” explains it all. It sums up rollerblading and our commitment to it. The original plan for the video name was “Decade” because we came up on 10 years of Revolution and wanted to do something for it. I liked it, but it never sat too well. I want to make something timeless for the video. I like “Die Trying” mainly because it’s this mindset I think every skater is constantly seeking to get into. The moment you’re like 20 tries in, you lose all thoughts except for what is in front of you. Your focus is set. You take the falls, get up, go right back up the stairs or whatever, and get back into it. I think every skater can relate to that – that moment you’re going to “Die Trying” to get it. So, I really like naming the video “Die Trying” – between our commitment to rollerblading, and our vision for getting out in the streets, working for our tricks, it makes sense. I love it.
You have been filming for the video a lot yourself, and obviously put in some serious work as we can see in the pictures featured here. How important do you think it is that you put your own health on the line for this project?
It’s everything. We have taken pride that Revolution is real skater owned, I’ll put it on the line for that no question. What is crazy is I am 36 years old, and right now is the best I’ve ever felt on blades. Everything is clicking. As you get older, the shift becomes more mental that physical. I think meeting Mathieu Ledoux was a pivotal moment in my life, we were both on the same path to finding peace mentally in our lives and I learned a lot from him. He’s one of my best friends now. You can train your mind to slow down and be in the moment. Let go of the past, and not stress over the future, and just be happy right now. Skating puts you there naturally, you can’t skate if your mind is clouded with stress, or turmoil. There’s so much we can’t control in our life, you can learn acceptance. Accept each moment – good or bad for what it is and keep moving forward.
The physical aspect is important as well, you have to take care of yourself, eating right, and exercising is vital if you want to stay in the game. I go to the gym 3-4 times a week, and stretch daily. I also train to keep my body strong to prevent injuries. I don’t want to blow out my knee, so I make sure I keep the muscles and ligaments strong around each joint. You have to. As lame as it sounds, but my Friday nights are usually spent with the family until Elias goes to bed, then I go to the gym at 9-10 pm. There’s only a few of us there, but we all are doing it for a reason. Skating is most important to me right now. I’m willing to make that sacrifice. I know what I am doing is not going to last forever, I don’t take it for granted either. I am going to do everything possible to keep skating.
Thank you for doing this with us James. Any last words of wisdom you would like to share with the world, people you would like to thank?
Thank you Be-Mag for the opportunity, it means a lot to me, for real. Rollerblading needs everyone. Anyone who is involved with blading is vital these days, our future is held in our hands. We can’t rely on anyone but ourselves to make rollerblading grow and stay strong. This is “ours.” Do it for no other reason than for yourself. I’ve been skating for over 20 years now, if I can inspire others to put their skates on, and stay in this, then I’m hyped. People ask why? Why are you up jumping off a roof? No one is making money off this. I take pride in myself at being good at skating, I’ve put myself through hell to get to where I’m at. We all have. As skaters, we better ourselves every time we put our skates on. That drive in us, we all have that feeling that eats at us everyday, we have to search for that new spot, we have to try this trick, we have to get our skates on, that is never ending. Unless you skate, you can’t comprehend that feeling we have. It’s not easy doing what we do. Be proud of that. I do it to push skating, I skate to progress this “sport” I love. I’m in too deep, haha, I’ve been laying it on the line more than half my life. That’s crazy to me. Skate spots you enjoy skating, never feel like you “have to” skate something. Remember every time you are able to put on your skates is special. A lot of people are not able to do what you do. Take pride in being a rollerblader, don’t let anyone make you feel inferior for what you do. I believe in you, I stand beside you, proud to be a rollerblader.
Thank you to my son Elias, you’re the reason I breathe. My wife Gretchen, without you, none of this would have been possible. Kato for the inspiration to start Revolution in the first place, I’m grateful for that. Geoff Acers at Sunshine Distribution, one of the best people in our industry. Keaton Newsom at Ground Control for believing in my skating, I’ll always remember that call you made to put me on, thank you. Damien and Joey at Fester Wheels, nothing better than running a wheel company with your friends. Mathieu Ledoux for being a warrior. All my friends and family who have supported my vision, remember behind any person’s success is a family who is there for them. All the skaters who have supported Revolution and believe in what we’re doing – YOU ALL ARE THE REASON WE DO THIS! Finally, my dad who passed away on Sept. 8th of this year. I will forever love you, and I miss you everyday. This is for you.