Sal Barbier wasn’t lost like most of the guys we feature in this column. He’s still visible in the SoCal skate world, but outside of this bubble, skaters might not know much about what the former H-Street and Plan B pro has been up to lately. And besides, Sal still rips and always does great interviews so after he came to our Sunset Rampage 2 miniramp jam, we thought we’d catch up with Swamp Rat himself.—Jaime Owens
Interview: Aaron Meza
How does a black man from Baton Rouge find a sponsor in the ’80s?
They had a lot of traveling salesmen back then. There was a guy named Louis Carleton who went on to do Small Room, and he had this skateboard company. Believe or not, at the time he was riding for Nash. He was really good and he didn’t ride the boards, but they gave him a budget so he traveled everywhere. He was from California and he would go to all the am contests that he’d hear about. He was putting together a team that was Epic Skateboards and that’s why they had all the skaters on it like Alan Petersen and Kris Markovich. He had a variety of really good ams. He saw me at a Powell demo right when bonite came out in New Orleans, I believe. This was like jump ramp and wallride days.
Were you a hometown hero?
I hid that title well for years, but when people came out for demos we didn’t want to skate when they were skating because we had a lot to do with them coming out there. There was this really cool lady that had this shop called Surf and Skate an hour away from me in Lafayette that I rode for. Charlie Thomas rode for them too. Then I rode for the Bicycle Source in Baton Rouge. And then if you went an hour the other way in New Orleans there was a shop called JFJ. So, believe it or not, I was riding for three shops. The lady at Surf and Skate had sons and she was basically doing the shop for them. She was the type of lady that had the van and would be like, “Let’s go to a contest.” Or “Let’s build a miniramp inside the shop.” So she would ask Charlie and I who should come out for the demos. Usually, back then, shops would just get the closest pro, who was usually a vert skater, and throw them on the street course. But with her she would let us pick who we wanted. So we did Mike Vallely, like, three times. He was hands-down the best dude back then. We always tried to get Gonzales, but he was always booked. Vallely was the underground baddest dude by far.
How did you come up with the Sal Flip?
When I was a kid in Louisiana skating downtown, I just skated by myself and would make up a bunch of stuff. I was doing airwalks down these stairs and I was thinking, man, I could just grab with my hand the other way and flip it the other way because I didn’t like it when you flipped it the normal finger flip way. You couldn’t go as high or tweak it out. So I just started doing it on flat and then down stuff.
So after Epic you got on H-Street?
I made it to the am finals one year in Arizona. I was riding for Tracker, and Epic had fallen apart. So at the finals I remember seeing this serious looking dude walking around, this skate coach with a planner in his hand, taking notes. It was Mike Ternasky. I saw Shackle Me Not at that contest. Through Tracker they were trying to get me on House of Kasai, which, no disrespect to Lester, I really wasn’t into. Jason Lee told me to call those guys [World Industries] up and get some boards and work it out when I got home. That was the first time I ever met him. Ternasky introduced himself to me also. He claims he asked me to ride for H-Street that day, but for some reason I didn’t take it that way.
So I went home to Louisiana and was like, “All right, I’m scared to call this Jason Lee dude.” And when I tried to call World, of course, the person on the phone had no idea what I was talking about. I ended up sneaking out to California and stayed at my friend Scooter’s house and he had a miniramp. Somehow all the H-Street dudes were in town skating the ramp. I knew a couple of them from Texas, like Dave Donaldson and Dave Neilson. Neilson was telling Ternasky, “You gotta check this guy out; he’s from the South.” We met up and Ternasky was like, “Yeah, I know that guy.” So he comes up to me and asks me what my story was. I was like, “Well, I don’t live there anywhere. I’m just staying at Scooter’s.” And he said, “We’re going filming. You want to come?” And that was it. I went filming for that video and that ended up being in Hocus Pocus.
I was a huge Matt Hensley fan, and the first day I got to go filming was with Hensley and Brandon Sheffiell at a bank-to-curb in Vista.
How did you establish having your own room at the H-Street house?
After my board came out and Ternasky and Andrecht moved out, I was probably the only guy paying rent. So I established quickly that the ’Stang goes in the garage and I get the master.
Who was a good H-Street house tenant?
Well if we had a Real World H-Street house, I would choose Tim Gavin. He was just awesome. We were on the same page. We knew who was a kook and who wasn’t. We were terrorizing people. I’d add James Fraizer to the house too.
Were you the first to rip off a sports logo for a graphic?
Yes, and it came from H-Street having the worst graphics in the world. I made my top graphic based off an LA Kings logo. I was still new to LA and I loved NWA, so I said, “I want a Kings logo. Put that shit at the bottom of my board.” Then they make it pink and put it on the top and then put the weird little dude on the bottom. I was like, “What in the fuck is that?”
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How come you didn’t get on Plan B right away?
Because when they were putting the team together it was top secret. Mike didn’t really tell anyone. While he was gone on a trip I told him that this H-Street thing was getting out of control. We had too many people on the team. So I called Steve Rocco and told him that I wanted to ride with you guys. He was really good friends with Ternasky, so he was telling him, “Yeah, man, Sal’s calling me.” So Mike said that he wanted to punish me for a month and make me wait to get on.
Did you feel like Plan B forced you into retirement in Virtual Reality?
During filming for Questionable, at the time I was into kickflipping down big stuff and doing bigger rails and when I went to film that kind of stuff I was told that we were not making that kind of video. That’s when everyone was into pressure flips and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t into that stuff because you can’t get your feet back on the board for most of it and I also didn’t feel like grinding two inches of a bench. So at that point I was thinking that my skating must be outdated. Right at that time I tore some ligaments in my ankle. When my ankle was starting to heal, I basically told Ternasky, “Just tell me what to do and let’s go film it.” I filmed that part in about a month’s time and it was pretty much what he asked me to do. So if I did a nollie front foot flip, it was him telling me what to do. I almost look at that part as Ternasky skating. I just would have jumped down rails. I probably would have done stuff that I had already done, but I would have done it bigger, you know what I mean? No disrespect to him or anything, but I was just tripping out at the time. It’s hard to come back from torn ligaments. When I started skating again I was like, “Cool, now I gotta learn whatever this stuff is.”
By the time Virtual Reality came along, I was like, “I want them to retire me so I can go skate.” That was my thought on it. I wasn’t even thinking about riding for someone else. Ternasky said I could work there doing the apparel and I’d make more money. I was, like, “Cool, let me make more money. I’ll go check into the Musician’s Institute and become a master of speed metal hand puppetry on the guitar.” I was pretty happy about that. But right when I was about to get out they pulled me back in.
You kept the metalhead thing under wraps for a long time?
No, I never did. I’m just into whatever is cool. I had Metallica graphics. At a contest one time, Jovontae looked over at me and was like, “Hey, blood, Metallica is fuckin’ dope,” because they were blasting it at the contest. Everyone likes that shit.
How did you get into announcing contests?
I never wanted to do it, but I was injured at a Back to the City contest and they had me do it. I remember doing a little dissertation on skateboard Bettys, and I guess people thought it was funny so they kept asking me to do it. They got me announcing and Tony Hawk was taking a run on the street and this was the height of Henry Sanchez. I remember Tony was trying to manual across something and his tail was dragging on the thing. I wasn’t making fun of anyone. So I was just calling the damn trick like it was: “Standard manual to tail drag.” Everyone was like, “Whoa!” Maybe that’s what skateboarding needs today is some sarcasm and people’s feelings getting hurt a little. Neil Blender wasn’t afraid to do that. I get it from him.
And you stayed with Plan B for a bit after Ternasky passed?
I tried to get involved with some creative direction. Rodney Mullen was in there too and was questioning my graphics, and I was saying I had my own ideas so I’ll just go off and do my own board and apparel company, which was 23 and Elwood.
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How was the 23 era?
The only thing I didn’t like about that was I could never get the right partner, so I always felt like I had to do everything as far as the labor. I wanted to go off and skate, not log hours. And that carried over to Aesthetics.
How was your time at Zoo York?
Well, that’s the funny thing. Everyone was like, “I don’t know why you did that with Aesthetics!” I tried to buy Aesthetics several times, but the other partner wanted a million dollars. It was already in the red, but I was willing to take it and do something with it. That happened to me like three times. I got forced out of that one.
The Zoo thing was cool. There was this guy there named Seth who I liked. The corporate side just bought it, so you had the right financing to do things, so I thought that was cool. The problem was that they started hiring the same dummies that come from skateboarding.
Did the team guys you brought from Aesthetics feel like you abandoned them when you left Zoo?
It was probably weird for a second, but I put them at a better place, you know? I wasn’t allowed to do what I needed to do there because there was so much interference. When I’m placing people and someone questions those people, I felt someone there was disrespecting them and I was breaking out on their behalf too. I wasn’t abandoning them but I wasn’t going to be capable of doing what I needed to do with them.
When was the last time you talked to Clyde Singleton?
I hit him up on Facebook like a week and a half ago.
Did he hit you back?
Yeah, he did.
What about Welsh?
I talk to him once a week. We talk about guitars and vert skating.
If you would have applied yourself, do you think you would have made it in music?
With my family history and my excellent ear for music, I’d have to say yes.
What kind of band would you have put together?
I would have had to do it more for the ladies than the hessians, so I probably would have just went new wave on that ass. I would have Echo and The Bunnymen’ed my way to all the women.
So what are you up to now?
Well, I’m working on my non-profit organization SL Barbier. I make apparel and skateboards. Not by choice, I do very limited editions. I have a non-profit without the proper tax write-off, how’s that?
How often do you skate now?
I go out all the time. Probably hit it like four times a week.
Who do you skate with?
My favorite is Steve Olson and Scott Oster. I like transition. It’s cool to take stuff you can do in a miniramp and try to take it to a pool.
When’s the last you did a Sal flip?
Maybe three months ago at a Brooklyn Projects miniramp session.
Is there racism in skateboarding?
When you go on tour there probably is, but everyone who works in skating is pretty open-minded. The type of people who own companies that you would want to ride for, like a Jim Thiebaud or a Rick Howard, are not going to be like that. If you’re gonna try to ride for some rebel flag company who’s got a vert ramp in the barn, you ain’t gonna get too many brothers to pad up and try Texas plants on the team.