INTERVIEW WITH MIKE MANZOORI
Etnies "Album" Out Today!
Do it yourself… Photo: Mike Manzoori.
WORDS: Stu Gomez
It’s been a long time coming, but today Etnies' first full-length in 23 years has been officially released. The video, Album, features Matt Berger, Barney Page, Koichiro Uehara, Jamie Tancowny, David Reyes, Willow, Chris Joslin, Aidan Campbell, Nick Garcia, Ryan Sheckler, Ryan Lay, Doogie, Samarria Brevard, and Trevor McClung. Good things come to those who wait… for a couple of decades or so.
When High 5, the first Etnies video, was released in 1995, skaters were treated to a veritable sampler platter of legends-in-the-making. Well, out of respect to the brand’s European roots, it was more of a smorgasbord: Marc Johnson, Eric Koston, Chad Muska, Tom Penny… they were all in High 5. Obviously, the 32-year-old brand has a knack for recruiting top talent (Etnies even produced the very first Pro model shoe for hoppy streetskating pioneer, Natas Kaupas, back in 1987), and with numerous impressive lineups evolving organically over the ensuing years, you have to wonder why it’s taken so long to produce a follow-up to this classic video.
In this YouTube/Instagram era, the rules of coordinating full-length skate videos keep changing. Career skaters need to divide their time among multiple sponsor commitments, constantly juggling obligations—all while staying productive by putting out clips regularly. It’s a race to maintain exposure in an environment saturated with choices, and there’s a strong temptation to dump your latest banger on Insta—it’s quick, way too easy, and immediately gratifying.
On the other hand, filming for a full-length video requires extreme discipline, maximum effort, and loads of time. In the case of Album, it took three years from the start of filming to the first rough cut.
Mike Manzoori, the videographer who has been involved with Etnies for years has become synonymous with high quality skate videos over the years, and his videography credits include Emerica’s exceptional This Is Skateboarding , and the trailblazing panoramic film AIMLESS, among others. His skate career has spanned decades, and he was even an Etnies am at the time that High 5 was released. With Album, Manzoori—in collaboration with co-director, Pierre Seni; team manager, Jameson Decew; director of music, Noel Paris; and cinematographer, Ryan Sherman—has crafted a full-length that bucks the short attention span trend. The video is made up largely of specially composed music, either by skateboarders or bands that figure prominently in skateboarding culture, rewarding those who watch from beginning-to-end.
This massive undertaking was as complex as it is creative. We caught up with Manzo to learn how Album came to be, and why planning a unique soundtrack may actually be logistically simpler than licensing existing songs. By reimagining the norm of soundtracking a full-length, Etnies' Album applied a skate mentality and DIY'd the shit. The result is a striking moment of progression for skate videos.
Manzo on the mike at the LA premiere of Album. Photo: Joey Shigeo.
How long have you guys been filming for this?
Too long, probably! A little over three years, I think it's become now. We've been saving some stuff in between other projects for a few years now.
How has your vision for Album evolved during those three years?
Honestly, it was just really about capturing raw skateboarding. Etnies has been involved in a lot of other things, other than skateboarding, over the years so this project really solidified the core team that they have… I hate that term—“core”—I don't know why I just used it. But as far as the vision goes, it's just about showing the riders at their best and what their personalities are. That kind of thing.
For the core team: Did Chris Joslin immediately stand out when you first started filming?
Yeah, the moment he got on the team it was very apparent that he was going to blow our minds. He got on right before the Plan B video [True, 2014] dropped, so he was still relatively unknown. He had some parts for Bones and stuff—but I hadn't heard of him, to be honest. There are so many good skateboarders out there these days! Jameson [Decew], the team manager, brought up this guy who was apparently gonna light it up on fire. I hadn't seen his Plan B part but I took it on faith based on what Jameson said.
We filmed this “Welcome to Etnies” part, which was a few minutes long. A real solid part, and we did it in a few weeks which really blew me away. I've never done a video part like that with anyone in that short of an amount of time; every day we went out and it was just like, trick after trick. It was pretty obvious once he got in the mix that he was going to light a fire under the project, for sure.
At the LA premiere. Photo: Joey Shigeo.
Where did you travel to for filming?
We got to go to quite a few countries, because we were kinda piggybacking on other things that were happening: tours, demos, and signing situations. We'd take advantage of that and tack on some filming days, so we got to travel quite a bit for the video. We went to Japan early in the project; we went to Australia; all around Europe—England, Spain, Germany. Uh, Canada… all across the United States. Even some South America spots. There was quite a bit of traveling for the video, but it wasn't just for the video. We always tried to tie it into other things, which is probably why the video took as long as it did!
Also, most of the team was still working on other projects at the same time: filming for the Element video was going on; Chris put out several video parts during filming for this video, I think he's actually filming for two different videos right now! That's a difficult part, too. It's hard to get everyone to just focus on one thing all at once, you know? With such a large team, the coordination can be a bit… and there were also injuries. There were some heavy injuries that stalled some of the riders' progress a little bit. That's always the case when you do a full-length video and there's this many dudes involved.
So, it obviously wasn't scheduled as a three-year project, then!
[laughs] Oh no! No way at all. They were like, “Oh, we'll get this done in a year-and-a-half!” Then you add six months [of delays], and then you add another six months, then you say, “Well, let's just add another few months to seal the deal. Whatever.”
Manzo checking footy with Ryan Lay. Photo: Sam McGuire.
As a seasoned filmmaker, did you feel a lot of pressure to finish the project within a certain timeframe?
A lot of it was just out of my control. We'd push as hard as we could, but then there'd be injuries and surgeries, and then you'd get new people on the team you need to film. You know, you just have to find that balance.
And there's been such a gap since High-5 [the last Etnies full-length, 1995].
Yeah, that was part of the motivation to get this video done. The original idea was that Album would be timed around the 30-year anniversary of Etnies. Then that came and went. I guess the main reason for the gap is that the team has never really sat still; it's evolved so much over the years. Once we had this group of guys… it was actually something that the riders came up with, to be honest. That was the whole inception of the whole thing. They were like, “Why aren't we making a new video? We've got a sweet team!” [laughs] We were like, “All right.” It wasn't my idea; it wasn't anybody at Etnies' idea. But I warned them: It won't take two years! [laughs] Not if it's going to be as good as you want it to be, you know what I mean?
Give me a little background behind the concept of Album.
There's not really much of a concept, I'd say. It's just a skateboard video. But the idea behind calling it Album is that when I think of an album, I think of a collection of either your finest moments or memories, or album as in a full-length music piece. So, if you consider that the full-length video is a bit of a rarity these days, and that people don't really have the attention span to go that long, the idea of making an album as a complete piece that you'll listen to from start-to-finish—or watch, in the case of a video—was a collection of our finest moments. Just: This is who we are; this is what we've done for the past few years. Not really any deep concept—just that these were our favorite moments.
How did you decide on the soundtrack for Album? All of the music was composed specifically for the video, right?
That was an extension of it, and it was a creative decision. We were just thinking that it'd be nice to have music that was completely original, that when you think of it you only think of the video. The other idea was that it should be skateboarders doing the music throughout, or musicians from bands that are synonymous—or have a history—with skate videos.
We did the recording at Noel Paris's studio called The Bionic Ear. Noel is a good friend of mine—I go back fifteen years with this guy—and he's worked at emerica for a long time now, and another good friend of ours, Randy Randall (who is in the band No Age), and those guys have been helping to coordinate everything through the studio. We've had a lot of guest musicians coming in: we've had John Herndon come in to play percussion on a few tracks; Leo Romero has been playing some guitar on some stuff; Mike Watt. Just trying to make something original that is from skateboarding and for skateboarding.
That was the creative side of things. On the logistical side of things, for the last few videos I've tried to clear music for it's been harder and harder. I was just tired of spending a ridiculous amount of money to get songs cleared. And then the other factor is that these days when you license a song there's a time limit. These things expire and then you have to keep paying, so in order for it to live forever I thought we would create a soundtrack that would be something we owned, as it were.
Aside from the logistical aspect, most of it was just trying to find really cool music. With so many videos having come out in the past 25 years, it's harder to find cool songs; this has been used, and that has been used. You know? I figured we'd try to shape it a little differently, as well, and try to avoid the typical structure if I can.
Have you been present at all of the recording sessions?
Pretty much, yeah. There was one session at the beginning that I wasn't there for but it was actually really successful. They nailed right out of the gate. It's just hard giving direction when I'm not at a session—the more I can be dialed in on my end, the quicker it is for them to get us what we need. But it's difficult because they're really talented musicians so I'm not trying to tell them exactly what to do— that's not my department, I'm not the musician—but I just try to make sure they don't so something drastically wrong, or go off in the wrong direction.
What's been good about the whole process is I'd give them some guidelines for the timing or tempo, or I'd just give them certain musical influences. Like, the bassline of this song seems really interesting or this guitar, or this type of feedback. Usually, what the result that they come back with is not what I expected—it's actually quite a nice surprise. It's like I'm composing a song and they're playing it for me; I'm throwing out ideas and they're throwing stuff back and things just start bouncing back and forth. We just stumble our way through and end up coning up with something pretty original, actually. It's been a fun process, for sure. It's a lot of work, but that would normally have been spent following up with music publishers and record labels trying to license music. This is a different type of work, plus you get to sit in the studio watching musicians like John Herndon rip it up on the drums! It blows my mind to have these people involved in my project, to be honest.
What's the process? Are the parts already edited when they start composing?
Not fully, no. There's kind of a bit of back-and-forth in the process, because we don't have everybody coming in and playing entirely at once. First, Randy or Noel will lay down a couple of basic tracks, just kind of outline the video based on a rough cut that I've got. And maybe a rough cut of a track, or even a rough cut to the basic timing—just to give them an idea of where they're going to begin with. Then, we'll tighten up the edit to first track that they've done, and then the musicians can start layering things back and forth. And within that process I can sort of edit the video to dial it in more to the music. So, we kind of dial it in from both ends and meet at the middle, as it were.
It's definitely an interesting process. I've done this on smaller projects but never for a full-length video like this. We've done some tracks where we're going to license the tracks that were already created, but for the most part they were created at the Bionic Ear studio.
Mike Manzoori, frontside boardslide—July 1990, Le Grande Bornande, France. Photo: Dave Swift
You mentioned earlier that full-lengths have become a rarity. What's your philosophy on full-lengths in this age, and do you think that Album's structure will influence things at all?
Well, full-lengths are always gonna be there. It's one of those things that you've never actually made any money off of. It's always been something that skaters just did for themselves to keep the hype up, really. There was a period, ten or fifteen years ago, when a few skate videos sold really well and people made a couple of bucks on them. But, generally speaking, it's a promotional tool to hype people up on the idea of going skateboarding. Showing milestones in people's progression, the brands' contributions to skateboarding and all that good stuff. So, they'll always be around but there's just not as necessary these days and it takes a lot of commitment for a brand to stash footage—like we did—for a longer-term project. Web videos these days are so gnarly! That used to be stuff you'd see in a full-length video.
A lot of it is just presentation. Album is just our celebration of the full-length video—I don't really think that we're gonna change the way the full-length is perceived, you know, but it's just our little gesture.