Alex Olson Chats About The 917 Team Fallout
Alex Olson is one of the most unique professional skateboarders in the industry. Having evolved from his youthful days of having clean-cut, slicked-back hair and wearing a plain white tee with black jeans, Olson now resembles a surfer version of Jared Leto that just returned from a lengthy backpacking trip in India. (So maybe just a surfing Jared Leto…)
A YouTube search of Alex Olson will lead you to his many interests outside of skateboarding, whether it be his veganism, his Wim Hof breathing exercises, his passion for creating music, or one of the many other passions Olson pursues.
After leaving Girl Skateboards, Olson and founded a board company called 917 and a fashion brand called Bianca Chandon. However, with the recent public exodus of team members from 917, the company is now a one-man band.
We talked to Alex about his plans for 917 moving forward, whether you can have a skate company without a team, and his outlook on everything from COVID-19 to social media and, of course, skateboarding.
Portrait by Ryan Ney @Ryanney_
Alex, thanks for joining me. How are you doing?
Yeah, good. How are you?
I’m alright, it’s been a weird year and a bit though.
Yeah, it is an interesting time. Unfortunately, but what can you do?
Yeah. How has COVID been for you? Has it changed your routine?
Yeah, I guess it has. It's made it a little more surreal, in the sense of just doing your daily routine, but having it extend into a whole year.
Yeah, I feel like time has paused for the last year and a half. I work from home so everything feels kind of the same each day. Do you go to an office?
I did. It was good for me. Basically, I'll say that much. You need the contrast. I guess that's what I've learned from it all.
It’s also tough to discipline yourself from home, it’s easy to get distracted.
It just makes it harder with everything going on right now to find motivation or be inspired.
I have a funny story. I went to your art exhibition in Sydney, I don't know, maybe like five years ago. And Spanky was there and a bunch of other people. And I saw you and I was like, “Alex!” and you said “Hey!” and then I just looked at you. And you looked at me, and I was like, frozen. I can get so school-girly around skaters.
That’s funny, I don’t remember it.
Do you get like that with people?
Do I get starstruck? I'm not saying that you got starstruck. Excuse me.
Oh, thank you. Do I? Yeah, I do, but it's very, very niche. It depends though, I'm not easily impressed.
Yeah. I’ve heard you speak previously about Pretty Sweet you called it a “gumball video,” which is funny because I’m so many skaters would be so psyched to be in such a huge, cutting-edge production. But I agree with your sentiments because even though the skating was crazy, I honestly preferred your Boys of Summer part. I thought that was way sicker.
I wouldn't count Boys of Summer as a part. But yeah, I guess Ty Evans kind of influenced how we see skate videos nowadays. But Bill Strobeck was doing his thing when Pretty Sweet was happening, and it just seemed so much more refreshing.
Also, the Palace guys and the Polar guys were doing their own thing too, and it was so much more lo-fi in a time when everything was so glossed over. To me, those videos seemed very refreshing. What Bill and all the lo-fi guys were doing at that time, doing it with their friends and not having this big, extreme team of megastars and making basically the blockbuster skateboard videos of its time. and I don't think they really have those anymore. I guess Propeller or Godspeed or one of those videos was one of the last ones. But those videos can kind of tear people teams and apart.
Do you feel like you can have superstar skaters in the age of Instagram and YouTube? As a viewer, I feel like part of the superstardom is the mystery behind the star.
Instagram is kind of our lifeline of keeping relevant, and you gotta just keep putting footage up. So I don't know if kids are learning how to save footage to then come out with something because everything's so instantaneous now.
Yeah, I find that there’s less of a distinction between Instagram clips and video parts in terms of trick quality now. When I see something gnarly on Instagram I think “wow, he’s throwing this footage away?” and then I see their part and it’s only slightly better, and I find myself underwhelmed.
Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I just know from the newer age kids, it's really hard for them to hold their footage because they want that gratification or that validation of putting their footage up on their account. I can't speak for them, but I'm sure people are scanning for the comments now.
Do you find yourself scrolling through comments? You were pretty early into the skate-internet scene, I remember you used to have a Tumblr account.
We’re all guilty of it to some degree. It's the dopamine that you get from comments and the negative or positive replies. You know, it makes you want more, so therefore you go out to get more in order to chase that high. Very much like a junkie. But yeah, I did Tumblr and stuff. And that was just, I don't know, that was just what it was at that point. It was just that tool versus what Instagram was, there's no real difference. It's just more effort and fewer people were using it then. It was different, different social media, but the same idea, I guess.
Yeah. And what's a day in the life of Alex Olson look like at the moment?
It's kind of sporadic right now. It depends on how the surf is too *laughs*, but if I'm in a good routine, I wake up and do my meditation, yoga, practice, and then I don't know, just figure out the things I had to do that day or what I had to do that week, you know?
So either I'm making graphics or trying to maybe try to film a trick. It's always been spontaneous in a way. It's never been a routine for me. Before COVID, it would be wake up, do my routine and go to the mall, go to my office and just work on stuff. Then I really started resenting everything. I’d do the whole thing with my companies and stuff and go back home. And it became this nine to five.
Right. And then obviously, there was all the 917 stuff.
Yeah, I mean, it's good. I'm actually weirdly happy it happened in a way because I wasn't happy where it was headed with. I mean, I'm assuming you're talking about the team, right?
There's nothing against them. It was just that I was doing graphics and stuff and was resenting the whole company and everything had to do with it. I wanted everyone to be pleased, but then at the same time, I'm like, “Well, I started a company because I wanted to do the things I wanted to do,” and now it's turned into just me making stuff. And then everyone's saying they don't like it anyways.
So it just made this really weird dynamic, and it was kind of a relief when everyone left, I guess, in a way. I mean, it doesn't feel good, and I wish them the best. But at the same time, it's like, there are things I wanted to do with the company that I knew I was never able to do because the team would never have gone for the ideas I had. But now, since I don't have those extra opinions, I can do the things that I wanted to do.
It's made it more exciting again.
Right, so what have you got on the horizon for 917? How does this change your plans?
I’m adding more of my personal creativity to the things that I'm into and adding it into the company and trying to expand it outside of skateboarding. I’m kind of realizing that skateboarding companies are so reliant on the skateboard teams, and that's not a really good business model in terms of longevity.
If you're gonna put the time and effort into making a company, you might as well try to broaden your horizons. I’m snowboarding and surfing and making music a lot, so I’m going to try and mix all that stuff into it. I’ll say that much.
Sure. I saw your recent ‘Out There’ video, and I loved that song at the end you made. I spoke with Ryan Allan maybe two weeks ago and he said that you are one of his favorites, because you're doing so much all the time beyond skateboarding. Is this a conscious effort of yours to try and learn as much as you can?
I think it’s from growing up with my dad and growing up in Los Angeles, traveling and being around different types of people, artists or musicians, and an eclectic group of people. It seemed kind of normal. I think I got bored easily as well, where skateboarding would be really fun and amazing, and then I wanted to do other things or learn other stuff. I was never like, a top-tier skater, you know what I mean?
I’ll use Ishod as an example because he's so focused, he's so talented, that he is someone that probably doesn't think of anything else because he has that type of mindset. And that's why he's so good. I was never like that. There were other things I liked. I don't know. I just have a curiosity about other things than skateboarding.
What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of skating right now?
I mean, I'll always love skating for what it is, you know, just the physical aspect of it. Maybe it's become too accessible. Or too popular? Maybe that’s just me sounding old. I don't know. Everyone's good, so it makes it kind of bland, because you could watch something really technical or difficult, and you almost expect it in a way. Now you see stuff and say, “Yeah, why wouldn't someone have done that already?”
So, that's my least favorite part, the mystery has been taken away from it because of how good people are. But I'm sure skating is still impressive and amazing to a 16-year-old kid.
Are you working on a part at the moment?
Um, I won't say a part. I'm just working on collecting footage.
Will we see another Alex Olson part?
Maybe we'll see. I don't know. Yeah, I'll try, maybe. I'm just trying to just collect what I can.
It would be awesome if you edited your own part to your own music. Just like a one-man army, basically, except for the filming. Unless you do like the GoPro that follows you.
No, the GoPro is not happening. But I get what you're saying.
Is that kind of your goal, though, to be like a one-man army? Because you have so many roles in your company and so many interests.
It's not that at all. And with the team leaving, I think what happened was, I let one person start doing their graphics, and then another, and it just turned into the whole team having opinions and wanting to do graphics. One person could actually do graphics because they went to school for it, but the others didn't.
It just became like this very lopsided democracy in a sense. Then with COVID happening and everything I had to give people pay cuts, but only for a couple of months, just because money was running thin. I guess people didn't have the patience for it. But I'm having fine and I'm happy where it's at, you know? And if it lasts two years, or one, that's fine with me as well. I'm not that worried about it.
Do you think that companies need to be more hierarchical, like, “These are the designs, you come to me and I'll percolate everything down.”?
No, because then resentment comes in. It's hard. I don't know. I don't have the answer for that one. I'm sorry. it's a case-by-case on each person. If it was me, I wouldn't respond well to that. So I kind of let people be their own manager in a sense.
Yeah, you had that with Girl and 3D.
A little bit. Yeah. And I wasn't mad. When the team told me they were quitting I was like, “I've been in the same position. I know what it's like.”
I was hyped on 3D. A team with you and Austyn [Gillette] would have been sick. Then he basically broke both his legs.
Yeah, a double knee surgery or something. For some reason, it just wasn't meant to be.
Have you thought about doing anything with Austyn after 3D?
No. Never. I remember when we both quit I would text Austyn and he wouldn't text me back for some reason. I just always thought that was weird.
Were you guys close? I thought it was like you, Dylan, and Austyn.
No, Dylan was the glue. And I was you know, I was close to Dylan and Austyn was close with Dylan.
Right. You and Dylan were going to do something, weren’t you?
There were talks of that, but it didn't happen. Right before Pretty Sweet came out Dylan was like, “let's do this.”
I was like, okay, but I'm not gonna quit Girl, I'll only do it under Girl. And then Dylan called Mike Carroll in October, right before Pretty Sweet came out in November. I think Mike couldn't even wrap his head around it at that time.
Then after Pretty Sweet came out, I quit, and I told Dylan, “Let's do this.”
Then Gravis and Analog went out of business, and Dylan said “Dude, I can't quit. The only way I'm making money right now is through my board sponsor.” And then it just never materialized.
Damn. It would have been very cool to launch a board company when you two shared your Cherry part. Do you have any favorite skaters at the moment?
I was just looking at Zack Allen's Instagram. He's pretty cool to watch.
Yeah, he's very cool. He's got a very unique style. I think that's really the key to standing out at this point in the game. You ever thought of recruiting him? What's he on?
Baker. No, I'm not snatching anyone. It’s a one-man band these days.
Is there an etiquette to poaching skaters from other companies?
There’s a right and wrong way to approach it. Right? I'm not a fan of FA. I'll say that much.
Oh really? I feel like from the outside looking in, FA is one of the few recent board companies to really make a solid mark on the industry.
If I wasn't me, I would feel that same way. Probably. But I think I'm too close.
Want to elaborate on your dislike of FA?
I think it's self-explanatory. I mean, just the way Dill goes about stuff. I don't know. I'm just not a fan. He's annoying to say the least.
I see. What do you have planned for the future? What does 2021 Alex Olson look like?
I’m trying to figure out how to make re-invent a skateboard company, I guess. How do you grow a skateboard company, to be bigger than a skateboard company? How do you grow a skateboard company outside of skateboarding without it becoming like Element?
I know you mentioned that you and Austyn aren’t bros, but do you look at Former Merchandise as a template of going beyond skateboarding in a non-kooky way?
I like Former for the surf team, which is funny. But I think they do a good job. It seems to me like it's the way Alien Workshop would be if it was involved with surfing I guess. It's not particularly my style, but I do like it.
Yeah, I getcha.
I'm trying to figure it out at the moment, as we're living in 2021, so I don't have the full playbook yet. But like I said, trying to broaden the company, outside of skateboarding, and doing the things that I like to do. I don't know, maybe do a radio show. I’m just trying to be more creative outside of skateboarding.
Well, I look forward to it with great anticipation.
Thank you, sir.
Are you going to start recruiting for 917 soon?
Nah, I think I think it's more about asking how to make a solo company. Because we're so individual now by our via our social media, everyone is an individual.
Do you really need a team in 2021?
As you grow old, you can't keep making video parts, so how do you evolve? That’s where I'm at, I guess, in my career of skateboarding. At 35, the wear and tear of my body exists. It’s just not as fun going out and skating, trying to film, and not getting anything, and then you're like, “wow, I have to take a couple of days off.”
It used to be like, wake up, go out, and do it again. And do it again. Do it again.
It’s funny because outside of skating you’d be a young guy. In skateboarding, you’re basically an elder.
Yeah, I think basketball is kind of like that. At 35 you're on your way out. So we'll see.
Thanks for chatting with us Alex!