Conor Charleson interview31.08.2020 - Exclusive
When I last interviewed you in late summer 2018 you were about to leave your job as a geography teacher in east London to go to Cape Verde to do conservation work with turtles for six months. How was that trip?
It was both an amazing experience and a frustrating experience. The good stuff was that I got to work with turtles and I got to know conservation and the techniques associated with that line of work very well. The NGO did do a lot of good. I’ve wanted to do that sort of stuff since I was a kid so getting to do it for the first time was mind-blowing. And then all the other stuff that comes with it like being on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and seeing stars and space like you’ve never seen them before because everything is so much clearer… all that was incredible. And I met a lot of good people out there including some sick local skateboarders. There were three on the island. It must be frustrating for them; they have to wait for a board to show up on the island before they can skate. I would only skate mine a few times, then pass it over and one more dude would come out skating. They were all sick and they’re still skating. They send me videos from time to time.
In terms of frustration, we were massively overworked for a large period of our time there. That year there was a global massive jump in sea turtles nesting. That wasn’t to do with the conservation, it was to do with some kind of environmental influence. There were twice as many nests as the previous year and in terms of staffing, they (the NGO) weren’t ready for it. Part of the job is to work really hard, but every hour of the day was controlled and mapped out and we were getting by on a couple of hours of sleep sometimes.
Then on a more serious note, some of the girls volunteering were put into very risky positions with guys in positions of authority and nothing was being done to deal with that. We were kicking off at the people managing it but they were happy to turn a blind eye for the sake of the conservation work. I reported it back to my university professor who sent me out there. I don’t think he was aware that it was going on. I think that the process by which they hire people will probably have been more stringent in the years that followed to ensure it didn’t happen again. It was just frustrating that nothing was happening at the time.
Did these experiences put you off conservation work?
No. Now I just know the right questions to ask before I work for a conservation project: details about the structure, details about how long people have been working there, what the different protocols are, all that sort of stuff. And it was still an amazing experience. Every night I saw these giant sea turtles coming up the beach, laying their eggs. If you want to know a little more about what we actually did, a lot of it was reducing the human impact. So if any turtles had nested in a dangerous place – near dogs for example, or near lights (which would attract the babies to the shore as opposed to he ocean) – we’d have to move nests, dig them up and make new ones somewhere else, then move the eggs somewhere safe essentially. That was pretty cool and obviously seeing all the babies hatch is quite exciting as well, and helping them get to the ocean.
The Cover Version premiere was a year ago. How do you feel about that project with some distance?
There were times when Dan (Magee) and occasionally Kev (Parrott) were doing my head in, or I’d feel a little frustrated, but looking back it was sick to be part of something like that where you can get up, check the group chat, where we’re going today, so-and-so wants to try something here… It felt like there was a structure. And it wasn’t really as strict as it was made out to be. I think Dan and Kev did a sick job with the video. It’s something that will always be good to look back on. Obviously I’ve watched those guys’ videos growing up. They were a massive part of the skateboard media I chose to watch when I was younger, so even now thinking back it’s like: “Damn, I got to be in a video made by those guys.”
You have a reputation among some filmers and photographers for taking a long time to land tricks. That’s not meant as a criticism. They’re often really awkward, difficult tricks with luck involved. I know Dan is vocal about the time he gives up to film skating. Yours seems like an unlikely working relationship, yet you’re good friends now and you’re out filming together regularly, post-Cover Version.
I mean he’d give me shit as much as he’d give anyone else shit. Obviously my two easy targets are my weight and how much time it would take to land something, but I would say he was pretty fair. As long as I tried, he’d be like: “fair enough, you had a fucking go.” If I dragged him somewhere and didn’t really have a go then yes, he’d be foaming at the mouth. I love him, he’s just a bit of an arsehole. I’m sure anyone who’s made a video with him would say the same. I find him quite easy to get along with and you can always rely on him to try and make time for you, which is great. I don’t want to talk for him but I think that making another full-length was quite stressful, but now we go out and it’s just nice: let’s go and have a nice day out and maybe we’ll get a trick. He’s not thinking: “I’ve got to do this full video by then, people are expecting something…”
What are you guys working on now?
It’s early days. It won’t be a full-length. I know Korahn (Gayle) and Charlie (Munro) have got some stuff. He (Dan) got a new camera and he’s enjoying playing around with it. I’ve been trying to get this dude Alex Hatfield out with us. He’s a bit younger, he’s got that tall fast tech steeze. He’s managed to get a couple of bits now.
You mentioned jokes about your weight. Does that stuff ever get to you?
That’s a good question. I think if you’re going to give shit, you’ve got to take shit from everybody. Everybody has something they get the piss taken out of them for.
People have serious issues about their weight though.
I think the best thing you can do is kind of lean into it. If you take it too seriously, that’s when it becomes a big issue. I don’t know… Shit, I probably should watch my weight. Occasionally I look down and I’m like: “Oh fuck, I need to do something about that”. I lost a lot of weight in Cape Verde because we were eating very simple meals and doing a hell of a lot of exercise but now that I’m back on an island with Greggs on it, I’ve put it all back on again.
While we were out shooting the other day, you described your time working with Bryce Campbell at Parlour as formative in terms of shaping your opinions on skateboarding.
I totally came from Wales with the attitude that all skateboarding is amazing then all of a sudden Bryce was like: “Why do you like that? Think about it for a second… If you just like everything isn’t it really boring?” I’d never let someone tell me what was good and what was bad, but he did push me to form my own opinions about what I liked and what I didn’t like. I was filming double flips before I came to London, over roads and down stairs and fucking hell I don’t know if what I do now is better or worse.
It’s well documented that Dan is also opinionated.
Yes for sure. Curation is important in skateboarding. Opinions make it interesting. If everything is good then it’s beige, the whole thing’s boring. Sometimes it’s good to talk a little bit of shit and say: “That kind of sucks.” Not that you should tell people how to skate, but you should be able to make an informed decision about what you like, who you like, and why. Now I am not too opinionated but definitely a lot more opinionated than I was the first year I lived here.
So Cover Version had a big premiere, a hard release, and did well online. Do you think it has or will have a similar impact and legacy of Lost and Found or First Broadcast, for example?
Those old classics are in a league of their own. I don’t think any online release will hold a candle to the impact that those videos had in skateboarding. Skate videos were released so infrequently in the past, that’s what made people really latch onto them. You watched that one video on repeat for years. Now it’s different because the next 20 things have come out between the 10 online channels you regularly visit. It does get lost
I think Cover Version had a longer life than a lot of recent releases. Lots of people wrote about it.
Yes I’m really happy with it and to have been a part of it.
Your part in Cover Version part felt like your approach to skating finally coming together. Were you happy with the part and its reception?
Yes I guess I was happy with my part. Dan and Kev did a great job editing it. It’s quite hard to look at your own stuff and be super stoked on it because you’ll always pick at the things you think you could have been done better or maybe shouldn’t have done. I would like to have done a couple of scarier things.
Since the video came out you’ve picked up some new sponsors: Vans, Levi’s and you’re now being flowed Hockey boards. Do you think this is all off the back of your Cover Version part?
A lot if came from people giving me a leg up more than anything else. Magee put a word in with Vans. Dom (Henry), who I was living with for a while, built stuff up (with Hockey) through Keen. Levi’s is obviously Charlie (Munro) and Manny Lopez’ link. They put in a good word for me. It’s probably thanks to the goodness of my mates as well as being involved in the video.
When I interviewed you last you were focused on a career in conservation. Now you seem focused on and immersed in skating. What caused this change in direction?
When I was teaching it was so hard to find time to skate. Between that and conservation, I probably lost out on more than a year filming for Cover Version. That drove me mad. Last time we spoke something in my head had made me decide it was time to grow up and get a proper job in teaching or finally make my way in conservation and I just couldn’t. While my knees are good I just want to kind of get by and piss around on my skateboard like a big child.
It’s more than just pissing around though. You mentioned some of your new sponsors had discussed taking you on trips, which you were really excited about.
I feel lucky more than anything. Shit it might not happen. Talks were happening before lockdown but nothing was set in stone. I was asked about availability and stuff. If I get to see a little bit more of the world through skateboarding then that’s one hell of a bonus I was honestly never really expecting.
More recently you were teaching skateboarding for a living. Tell us about that.
I was working for Dave Chesson, who has been running skate lessons for a long time. I was doing beginners’ lessons at House of Vans and we would go to primary schools and work with school kids. I was also teaching some lessons at BaySixty6. I still find the concept of somebody teaching skateboarding very strange, so I try to pursue it as helping to get people into skateboarding, helping them enjoy and understand it. I don’t see what I do as coaching or training or anything like that because that’s not what it’s about.
Do you see a difference in the motivation of kids taking lessons to yours when you started?
You get a lot of terrified kids, whose parents thought that it might be cool for them to try it. That was never a thing before. Kids were at the skatepark because they wanted to skate, not because their parents were like: “What about skateboarding? That’s pretty cool isn’t it?” The parental involvement is interesting. It varies greatly. A lot of parents just want their kids to find something that they enjoy and are quite happy to give skateboarding a go and obviously a lot of kids stick with it. Those parents are easy to get on with. Occasionally you’ll get that one parent who wants to know what they’ve done today or how they’ve progressed and you’ve kind of got to explain that it’s not about that. It’s not like maths, they haven’t learned a certain kind of sum that day. They’ve just enjoyed skateboarding and maybe they’ve had a go at something new.
Do you teach boys and girls?
Yes. I reckon in schools and House of Vans the split is probably about 50 / 50. If I ever do adult lessons, there usually are more women than men. I don’t treat girls and women any differently. I don’t know why you would, they learn just as fast. Skateboarding is a male dominated thing but I don’t see any reason why it should stay that way.
In your Up interview in 2018 you mentioned Billy Trick as someone to look out for, which was a good shout. Do you have any new tips?
Alex Hatfield, who I mentioned before. I think he’s from Windsor but he lives in London now. I see him a lot at SB and I’ve got him out skating a couple of times. He’s really impressive. He can do really difficult manual tricks with power and going really fast, which is rare. There’s also a guy called Dennis Roberts who has kind of grown up at Bay. He works there now. Watching him skate is really sick. We have similar tastes in skateboarding and the dude’s really handy.
How has your lockdown been?
I broke my ankle as we went into lockdown, but it was as good as an ankle break could be. I managed to get my boot off and start doing physio after four weeks. Korahn and Ben (Rowles) gave me lots of advice and my friend, (Brayden) Slezak gifted me a wobble board. Because there wasn’t much else to do in lockdown, I pretty much did physio every day for long periods. As lockdown started to ease, my ankle was strong enough to go out skating and we managed to get some bits done for the interview.
What about financially?
Well House of Vans closed and so did the schools, so I haven’t been able to teach skating the whole time. I hadn’t been self-employed long enough to claim for that assistance, so me and my girlfriend Melody had to apply for a joint Universal Credit thing. That’s carried us through somewhat. My girlfriend has been super helpful as well. She’s definitely bought me more than her fair share of meals and booze to keep me going because she got a little bit extra from her work.