[July 21 2015]
I called up Harmony and the conversation begins with him telling me about Steven Cales and all the ways in which he influenced skateboarding, I do a skateboard documentary show on Vice called Epicly Later’d and Harmony was suggesting a Steven Cales episode. We talked for a few minutes about that before I started the interview.
Interview and portrait Patrick O’Dell. All archive photos courtesy of Harmony Korine
Patrick O’Dell – How did you first hear about Steven Cales, was this when you first moved to New York?
Harmony Korine – So what happened was, my parents were from New York, but I lived and grew up in Nashville, and then when I was a kid, when I started skating, I would go to NY for the summers and skate. I started going when I was about twelve and would live at my grandma’s house in Queens. And then I remember probably meeting Harold Hunter when I was about 13 and he was probably a year younger. I met him with Q-lon, and even maybe Mike Kepper, and lot of early Shut skaters… Eli. Harold and I became really close right away. That’s how I fell in with all the East Coast skaters. I remember seeing Coco Santiago back then. It was a whole other style and a whole other world. It was very exciting.
Patrick O’Dell – And you went to Savannah Slamma?
Harmony Korine – That was the first time I met Gonz, I must have been 13. I was with a skate shop from Nashville called Pro Action Skates, and we rented a school bus, and we drove up from Nashville to Savannah and I remember literally pulling up to the front of the arena and seeing Gonz in the front in the grass with a crowd around him doing backflips. He was wearing dress socks pulled up over his knees and he was running doing a series of backflips. I was like ‘What the fuck, that’s Gonz!’ But I didn’t really become friends with him or start skating with him till years later.
Patrick O’Dell – Are there skaters from Nashville that you looked up to that we don’t know about?
Harmony Korine – There were all these skaters, the very first pro skater I ever saw was Bill Danforth. He used to ride for Madrid and later Alva. And he was like the local pro, he worked at the skate shop here, though he was from Ohio. And there was this guy named Todd Milsap whose dad was Ronnie Milsap, the blind singer. He had this skate shop here called Brentwood Skates, and there were all these skaters but it was isolated, and a lot of the skaters here when I was growing up were pretty gnarly kids from messed up homes. That’s what it was like back then in general. There was a lot of dysfunctional craziness. One of my favorite skaters of all time was this guy from Atlanta named Fred Reeves from the south. He’s as close to Gonz as the south has ever produced. He had the coolest style. He was in magazines but he was isolated… he would win every contest, take the trophy and the money get in his Volkswagen and disappear. He was mythic, he had the sickest tricks and style, and it predated a lot. He was a huge deal in the south. I used to skate with Kris Markovitch. I think I even met Billy Waldman for the first time at a contest in Georgia, we became friends. He was like a little terror.
Patrick O’Dell – Is that what got you to New York and California? Motivated by skating?
Harmony Korine – I’ll tell you exactly, skating is kind of this thing that comes into your life and it saves your life. It changes your whole perspective on things and you never look the world the same way again. It was a different time back then and it was more like obviously pre-internet and pre-cell phones. I just remember parents didn’t really… not that they didn’t care so much, but we lived kind of free. You know what I mean? You would go to school and come home and get your skateboard and disappear, then come back at night. And parents just seemed to go with it. I remember when I was 15 or 16 taking a Greyhound to Las Vegas meeting this skater Larry Jones, he used to ride for G&S, and the going to Embarcadero and living on rooftops, and meeting skate kids, and being like ‘I forgot to call my parents for the summer.’ It was like a different time, you know?
And so skating was the main thing, on both coasts New York and San Francisco. That was how I met a lot of the people who ended up in Kids, skating at Embarcadero in probably 1990-91. And then at some point when tricks started getting really technical and really big with steps and handrails, I was seeing the direction of it, I just knew I was never gonna be able to go for it in the same way. And that was kind of it. When I was a senior in high school I quit skateboarding. I was getting flow from G&S and even Alien Workshop and I just remember getting stuff and thinking ‘I’m not gonna skate anymore, I’m gonna try and make movies.’ I felt like I could never be that good, so I said fuck it!
Patrick O’Dell – When you based “Gummo” in Xenia, is that in reference to the Alien Workshop PO Box in “Memory Screen”?
Harmony Korine – Yes totally, thats exactly what it was. Memory Screen was a huge influence on me at that time. I wrote Kids when I was 19, I made Gummo when I was maybe 22. So I was just out of high school a couple years and that video was my favorite. As big as I was into movies at the time, and watching films and being influenced by certain films, Memory Screen was such a big deal for me. The weirdness of it was so close to how I grew up. The use of the footage, the music, the repetition, the degraded imagery, the kind of violence of it, the middle America sadness. It was a big deal. So when I was coming up with the idea for Gummo and how it was about a tornado, I needed a place and I knew it was actually in Xenia, which was on the back of the Memory Screen box. It was the actual place of America’s worst tornado. I went there alone after the movie was financed, and did research. There was really nothing there. There were these two weird kids that were from Xenia, that were identical twins that were in the movie, I made them come to Nashville.
Patrick O’Dell – Are there other things in your work that come from skateboarding?
Harmony Korine – I don’t know, even in a film like Trash Humpers that I did, which was more of an experiment, that’s still kind of about skating. In some weird way, if you watch the films there is kind of an obsession with an American landscape or kind of a middle American vernacular. I’m always thinking, “Why am I so drawn to alleyways, and parking lots, dilapidated buildings, the back of supermarkets?” You are drawn to certain things, and if you spent so much time as a kid skating in those places they start to become familiar. They are the middle American ruins. You start to finds a solace in that, an attraction. Places where you can disappear.
Patrick O’Dell – Have you ever wanted to make a skate video.
Harmony Korine – You know, not really. I think about that too. I see stuff, like I thought the Supreme video was really cool. I see the Palace videos, they’re really cool. But I honestly I don’t see how… It seemed like skate videos for a while were getting too highly produced, and I would watch them, and the tricks were so sick and so technical and big, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the skaters. It all seemed like it was one person. So I’ve liked watching skate videos get back to basics. Seeing stuff on bad video, bad angels, bad sound, it reminded me of something more raw. The more wild and degraded the better, but at the same time, I don’t know where you could go from there. The thing about doing skate videos in an artistic way is you kind of have to film the skateboarding and the trick. Then you have interludes but its a hard thing to do. Where do you go from there?
Patrick O’Dell – Yeah, filming with a drone…
Harmony Korine – Or slowmo in the middle of a trick. It seems like whenever there is a new technology, then every video is that new technology. Then someone will go back and shoot the next one on the VHS and we’ll get super excited. I think the different styles of the skaters makes the difference, their personalities.
Patrick O’Dell – That‘s too bad, I’d like to see a Harmony directed skate video.
Harmony Korine – I don’t know, maybe, it would be fun. Maybe film a couple parts or something.
Patrick O’Dell – You did a shoe for Vans Syndicate, would you be stoked to see skaters skating in them?
Harmony Korine – Yeah! I already gave a pair to this kid who lives here named Dee Ostrander who skates for Baker. Dee and his brother are two of the best skaters I’ve ever seen from Nashville. He’s part of this crew here called the FU crew, they’re just these gnarly hesher kids that listen to like Memphis rap from the 90’s and skate so hard, it blows my mind. I go out skating with them sometimes now, and we skate the same places like Legislative Plaza, which is one of the best places in America to skate. You get kicked out after a short period of time. It’s better than anywhere I’ve ever seen. And those kids just demolish it, it’s fun to watch them do tricks that when I started skating you would have never thought could exist.
Patrick O’Dell – Wait, so you still skate or you quit?
Harmony Korine – I do skate but I hate sucking, you know? I have so many friends that I used to skate with that push around, and I like that, but I also hate it. I can’t lie, I actually hate it, I hate sucking. And I hate being scared to do tricks that I used to do. You never used to second guess doing any type of skating gaps or rolling up sidewalks, but I’m like 40 now, I have kids, what am I gonna break my wrist? I still skate, but quit skating like I used to. It’s a hard thing to quit. You just look at things differently forever after. It changes your perspective on things, even as a director. Skateboarding more than anything influenced everything I’ve done. Even just seeing Neil Blender in a video as a kid. Or seeing Gonz doing a dark slide on the cover of Power Edge. If it hits you at a certain age and you’re impressionable and open to it, it’s an event.
Patrick O’Dell – I know you know Gonz, but do you still get excited meeting other skaters you looked up to?
Harmony Korine – I saw Sean Sheffey at Tampa Pro, I couldn’t believe it, I was so excited. When you’re a kid they are almost like superheroes. Especially at that time when tricks were being invented and styles and every video was like something that was monumental. Back then you were watching skateboarding invent itself. And it was word of mouth, you would hear about thing or see it in person.
Patrick O’Dell – Sometimes I like to look back on the 90’s, but there is another part of me that remembers that it sucked too.
Harmony Korine – Yeah, that’s probably when I quit. There was a point in the middle 90’s when people had really wide jeans, remember that? When everyone looked like ravers. When their jeans went over their shoes. That was the worst period.
Patrick O’Dell – I didn’t like how to had to have a certain uniform. Now you can skate and have all kinds of different styles or do whatever and no one is gonna beat you up at the skate spot.
Harmony Korine – Yeah, its a different thing, it’s why I started making movies. I was doing all these interviews 20 years ago when I was still a kid and I was angry. It took me a long time to realize it but a lot of it came from being back then as a skater, growing up in the south. Skating was really provocative and people hated you. Kids became brutal, you would get spit on all the time, you would get in fights every day. That was part of the lure, you liked that feeling, it was kind of exciting. You liked making people upset and that carried over into my 20’s… I still carried all that aggression. You still didn’t trust grown ups or authority. Now it’s kind of easy, you go to the skateparks, and they are all run by churches. There’s a corporate entity.
Those early movies were meant to provoke. That feeling I had as a skater, making people upset, carried over into the work. And I was so used to that that it was natural. Embarcadero was such a violent place, and so was New York. At that point it was a wolf mentality. I used to see crazy shit and there was brutality in those early films that was something I was also coming to terms with. It’s something I don’t see much of now.
Patrick O’Dell – There is the gay bashing scene in Kids…
Harmony Korine – That scene is taken from real life. Justin and Harold went to the bathroom at Washington Square Park and some guy tried to jerk off on them. And that’s what happened. When you think about all the people that went to jail from that era it’s crazy, and so many of the people from Kids had a difficult time, readjusting into life. All of the sudden you have to get a job away from skateboarding. Try to figure out how to have a wife. Those kids were living with no rules. It’s hard for people to understand the level of wildness. Little Javier Nunez, he was like 11 at the time, and he was one of them, he was with them everyday on the streets, there was no school. He was an 11-year-old kid living on the street, and smoking weed out in the open. There weren’t security cameras and parents. That was in a weird way the last gasp of that. Who knows, maybe its better now, kids don’t get in as much trouble.
Patrick O’Dell – I don’t know, it seems like it repeats itself quite a bit in skating. There are a lot of deaths still, a lot of troubled kids. It happens a lot, they are re-spawning themselves.
Harmony Korine – Like Antwuan Dixon. He reminds me of those type of kids.
Patrick O’Dell – He’s like GG Allin.
Harmony Korine – His skating is so sick. And he has no filter.