An Interview with Joey Piazza

This is an interview with Joey Piazza about riding in New York, teaching kids at school, complex grind configurations, having the last section in his own video, that guy who had that horrific crash riding down an escalator, flatland, Union Square, goofy-footed grinding, not being indoors, the Caribbean and the new AM:PM video. It originally appeared in Red Steps Issue 5, but seeing as his new DVD is finally done, now seemed like a good time to upload it into the binary world. Photos by Seth, Wozzy and Russ Bengston.

Starting from the start, when did you get into riding?

Probably in 99. I started skateboarding first, with my friends in my building, and then ended up getting into riding. It was just easier, you could go further. I remember I saw DMC riding a vert ramp, and I thought it looked crazy—he was doing flips and everything. So I started going to Union Square and that’s when I met everybody. When I first started, I was actually trying to ride flatland.

Flatland was big back then. 

Yeah, there were a lot of flatlanders in New York. In Union Square there’s really nothing there except a set of stairs and some flat ground, so a lot of the flatlanders would have contests there, or be practicing there. People would be riding street too, setting up garbage cans, but it was more of a meet-up point. But yeah, I was real hyped on flatland, but I wasn’t very good at it. 

It’s too hard. There’s a tough learning curve.

Yeah—I lost interest on that real quick. So then I started riding street with everybody, going out and being a part of the session. I couldn’t really hit any of the spots—they were hitting rails and stuff, and I’d just started riding. 

Who was that with?

I was riding with that kid Rah Rah, and then all the dudes like Wormz, Tyrone and Edwin. I wasn’t going out filming with them, but I’d be there, tailing along. I rode with pretty much the same people I ride with now… 

What were you looking for back then?

It’s was just rails. Rails and ledges—that was it. Once I did my first rail, it was go time. It was just about throwing yourself down anything. The first rail I did, it wasn’t the Banks rail, but there used to be another one there—if you watch the first Animal video, Edwin does a 180 over it, and Vic does an X-up icepick down it. 

And then there was a rail in Midtown called the Starbucks rail. It was pretty much everyone’s first rail. It was mad low, the only thing was you had to take a 90 degree turn to hit it. And once I hit those two, it was a wrap—it was anything, the rail could be a bike-length long, but you’d just throw yourself on it. I think that must have been in 2000—it was definitely before September 11th, because we were still riding downtown and getting into a bunch of shenanigans.

It’s maybe a bit of a cliched New York question, but did that change riding the city as much as people made out it did?

Yeah, it really fucked everything up. Because skating and bike-riding were getting so popular, there was already security, and spots you couldn’t go near, but September 11th definitely ruined everything. You couldn’t even ride downtown at all—and there were a lot of good spots in that area. Slowly but surely they’d open up parts of it again, but with the whole surveillance deal, and security, it just got crazy. 

Did that send people out to find other spots? You couldn’t rely on just riding downtown anymore.

Yeah definitely. A lot of the people who rode New York weren’t really from the city, they were from different boroughs, but they’d come from the city to ride. So once everything got closed off, they were like, “Well, I’m just going to ride in my neighbourhood.” So I’d go out there to ride. From there, we started riding around, finding more shit. 

When did AM:PM come about? You were pretty early on putting videos up on the internet.

That was 2005. There was something in the city called 20inchNYC, which was a message board where you could post videos. The dude that did it, Mark—me and him went to the same high school. He took an IT class, and he learned how to do coding and everything, and started that website. So when I got a camera, that had just phased out, but if you had a weird server you could post a video on the internet, and people could embed it on a webpage. It was definitely hit and miss. So I got my camera and just started filming everyone at Union.

Bob would come out filming for the Animal videos and whatnot, they were already working on All Day at that point. There were three filmers in the city—Tyrone would film everybody, the homie Ricardo and then Jerry—Launchpad. They were the only three filmers in the city who were doing anything, but no one was doing anything independent—it was just, “Film me for Animal.” So I started making videos, and obviously we were cool with Animal, and people were a part of it, but I thought, “Let’s do something a little different.” 

Your videos weren’t like the usual stuff around at that time.

I was just trying to capture the real vibe of what we were doing. I felt like videos at that time were real black and white—“We’re going to go out and do this, or we’re not going to film.” But what about all the funny stuff that happens in between the sessions—all the stuff that happens on the way to the spot? I’d have my camera out before we even got to the spot because people were jumping over garbage cans, or doing funny things on the way there. 

So then it became, “Why not combine that with the stuff we’re going to do at the spot?” Just trying to combine everything we were doing into one thing, so it gave it a bit more flavour rather than looking like an actual video.

Not driving the team van to the rail.

Exactly. For me, the best part of riding is just being able to ride—not having to be so day and night about it. Everything was real spontaneous. I don’t know if that cars going to turn, so you’ve got to be ready, and I’m going to be there to document it. 

In that first AM:PM in particular there’s loads of that kind of thing.

Yeah, we were kind of letting the day decide what we were going to do. We might be riding around and see a flatbed truck that had perfect metal on it, it’d be, “Let’s session this real quick.” If you’re driving around on your point A to point B riding style, you’re going to miss all that stuff.

Are people too strict about things? Like you say, a lot of riding videos feel so black and white. 

Yeah, people have their ideas of what they want it to be. They have rules and standards—I have standards too of how I want my riding to look, and what I want to try and ride, but yeah—it just becomes too serious, in a way. I just like being in the middle of that—not taking it seriously, and kind of taking it seriously. 

I don’t really care about sponsors, or what the hot trick everybody’s trying is. We’re just doing what we want to do, when we want to do it. I think just being a part of a company, stuff gets so regimented—“We have to do this today, and then this tomorrow. We’ve got to go to this spot.” But I don’t really care.

It’s not work.

If it causes any anxiety, or stresses you out, you’re not doing the right thing. There are things I want to do, that I think about a lot, but I’m not killing myself over it. I’ll get around to it when I get around to it.

There’s no rush. You stopped doing the online videos just as everyone else started with that—what was the reason behind the shift?

There was a whole situation behind that. That website TheComeUp was around, and I was making all those videos, and one hand kind of washes the other. Videos would go on there, and I would get views, but then I’m like, “I’m not making any money off this, but somebody else is.” I didn’t really like the vibe of that site, so I thought that was a good reason to start making an actual video, instead of just giving stuff away. I don’t mind giving stuff away for free, but it was the fact that someone was benefiting from my videos more than me. 

It did seem strange how one guy was just hoovering it all up—someone slaves away making a video all the winter, then it just gets swallowed by some website.

In a way it kind of got popular because of it, but it was a weird situation. I’d rather not go that route. I spoke to him about it—I said, “I really don’t want you to post them.” But whatever. You can’t control what happens on the internet, just as you can’t control what happens in the streets.

How many of that first video did you make?

I got all the DVDs burned, then we made all the covers, and wrote on them all. Me and Chris Johnson and Ralph and Tyrone. It was terrible. It was like 1100 copies. Then by the third one, I bought a DVD burner and it was really simple. 

Like Bob’s super-burner?

He’s the one who told me to get it actually.

On the subject of Bob, why is your favourite video Skapegoat 7?

It’s kind of an inside joke between me and him, because he said that video was a look inside his mind. He was doing all sorts of weird shit at the time. It wasn’t even really a riding video. I’m driving a boat in it.It’s all-out stupidity.

He’s wasn’t far off making the ‘riding video without the riding’ with that one. Going back to the first AM:PM video, what’s going on with that guy riding down the escalator?

We were out riding one day, and he was like, “I’ll ride down the escalator if you want to film it?” I said, “Word of advice, it’s going up, so you better go fast.” He was like, “No, no I’m good. Tell my mum I love her.” And he got killed. He didn’t go fast enough, and he flipped. We were in hysterics. Once we realised he was okay, we were dying. Straight comedy.

It gets talked about more than 99% of riding clips. Maybe a strange question, but does being goofy-footed help with some of the more advanced grind configurations? You’re ‘double-goof’ aren’t you? Like Ralph? Does that help with 60/40s?

It helps, and it also fucks everything up. So on certain set-ups, your pedal kind of knocks you onto it, but then I forced myself to do them opposite too, where your front foot locks on and keeps you balanced. And then when you’re doing something where the back peg’s higher than the front peg, for me I like it better because I can kind of lean in a little better.

What about names for things, do these grinds, beyond the 60/40 have names?

I just called them whatever Butcher and those guys called them. Like the magic carpet grind or the levitator. The one that I’m doing in the Dig magazine, it’s like a crooked grind, on a roller-coaster rail, where they’re too far apart for you to get the peg in—I never saw anyone do that, so I called that a farside crooked grind. I don’t know. Who knows? It might already have a name already?

Going against video conventions, you had the last part in AM:PM3, what was going on there?

That’s not my fault. So, we were filming, and I was going to give Ratkid or Frank the last section. But Ratkid was like, “I don’t want the last section, you can have it.” Then I asked Frank and he was like, “The reason why I’m riding is because I’m getting hyped off you, so you should have the last section.” So I was like, “Damn, this is not going to be a good look.” 

It was a good part. 

I should have got somebody else to edit the video so it wouldn’t be so jaded. For this video, Tyrone’s having the last part. He’s too futuristic man. Between him and Lino, their riding has aged like fine wine. They just keep getting better. 

I know Tyrone’s not even old, but maybe 20 or 30 years ago people thought 25 was old when it came to riding.

Yeah, I always make this joke that when I was 16 at Union, there were dudes that were maybe 27, and they’d be riding, just doing 180s. I was like, “Damn, is that what it’s going to be like when we turn 27?” But here I am at 35 still trying to do the same shit.

But then there are those people who are old before their time. Almost wanting to be ‘the old guy’ when they’re younger than me—buying a T1 and doing manuals around a skatepark. They sort of admit defeat.

I would love to be one of those guys. That’s all of our problems, we can’t admit defeat. Back in the day you’d just bounce back, but now if I get broke, I need four or five days of chilling, and it still hurts. All the new kids are like, “How come you’re not really riding?” But I can’t ride every day.

You need to get on the yoga scene like Dolecki. Get the diet down.

That stuff works man, I’m just too irresponsible and undisciplined to do any of it. If I stretch, I’m going to pull a muscle. But that is the key to longevity. Drinking water, stretching, eating decent, it really goes the whole nine. Dolecki’s been killing it, and he’s about to be 50. That heavy ass camera bag he’s carried his whole life has kept him in shape.

Do you sometimes wish you could go out without the bag?

I wish man. It wasn’t too bad being in my 20s, and having the camera all the time, but now, carrying a bag is like, ‘ugh’. I’m trying to get all the younger dudes motivated, get their footage. I’m not trying to pressure anyone though. At the end of the day, we’re trying to walk away healthy, safe and free. 

Is it sort of an obligation to film this stuff? Some of the people on your videos don’t strike me as the kind of people who’d usually seek out the camera. Like Frank Macchio, for example.

You’re right. I was going out to Queens after work everyday—jumping on the train and taking it to the last stop. He lives far—he lives on the border of the city. I’d take the train out there, then have to ride five miles to be where he lives, and we’d just ride for hours. He’d get me hyped, so I’d be trying new stuff, and then he’d be trying new stuff—it was real motivating. He was doing all this weird stuff I’d never seen before.

Who’s the other guy from Queens who does similar stuff? The one who does the crank-flip to x-up ride to handrail?

Gino Schettini. He’s a firefighter, and he’s really into working out. He has his own gym. Frank actually got him to start riding again, that’s why he’s in AM:PM2. He was training to be a firefighter at the time. Those dudes don’t lose it though. If I don’t ride for a few days, I feel so whack, but those guys are so good.

Do you think that thing of people having regional styles still exists?

Everyone’s starting to ride the same way because of the internet. There’s a lot of kids from New York that ride like they’re from Cali. It’s funny. 

What about Johnsson, does he still ride?

Yeah, he’s still around. He rides motorcycles, and he’s got his Volvo he drives around in. But he’s another one—he won’t ride for two months, then he’ll come out and do the craziest thing. It’ll be one try, and it won’t even be on his bike, he’ll borrow somebody’s bike, then we’ll go and get food. I hang out with him all the time, we just don’t ride. 

He’s out of his mind. He used to ride dirt bikes, and then he got into racing on BMX bikes. The first time I met him he came out on a Dyno with no brakes. The bike was a piece of shit. He jumped a 12 stair rail hop, and broke the bike. He’s got some crazy clips in the new video.

What’s going on with the new video then? How long has it been?

I started filming it in 2013, so yeah, it’s been a long time. I was going to put it out a while ago, but then a few people got hurt, and then other people jumped on. It’s a revolving door of cast members coming in and out. But it’s definitely going to be released soon. I have so much footage, it’s completely outrageous. 

Does stuff outdate itself after a while? Not with other riders or anything, but maybe where you’ll do the same trick on a better spot or something?

There is some of that, but not as much as you’d think, mainly because 60% of the stuff we rode doesn’t exist anymore. Once it comes out, people will be like, “Oh I want to go there, I think I can do this.” Well, you can’t—it’s not there. 

But yeah, going through the footage, some of the stuff people did a few years ago I still haven’t seen anybody do. Oba’s done some things that you’re not going to see—there’s one spot where the obstacle decides what you’re going to do on it, and he did the perfect trick on it. And now people will try and find that thing.

Last summer was crazy. There were things I’ve been trying to hit for ten years that I finally got to ride. One of the tricks in the video, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top. It’s like an eight or nine stair down-rail, into a storm door. That’s like what you’d always want to find—the perfect rail. What am I going to do now? I feel like that’s the grand finale for me. I’m not going to be able to find anything that makes any more sense than that.

Your white whale. How would you define this ‘street riding’ business? People are hung up on definitions a bit, but what is it to you? 

I’m probably the wrong person to ask, as I kind of have a jaded view of it all, but to me, everything is street riding. It never really ends. You could be going shopping with your girlfriend, and you’re driving, and you see something—that’s street riding. Or you’re out with your homies, and you don’t even have your bike—that’s street riding. The same way businesses will go for a business lunch, and charge it to the company card, but they’re just drinking beers—it’s the same thing with bike riding.

Some riders seem to almost have a ‘riding mode’—you know, ‘put on the Etnies’—and then the rest of the time they’re doing some completely unrelated thing. In my head it should all fit. 

Of course. I watched Goodfellas last night, and I must have seen that ten times, and to me, that’s like watching a BMX video. I’m thinking about the neighbourhoods they filmed it, maybe it’s got good stuff to ride in, or crazy graffiti… it’s all the same. If you watch Infamy or State Your Name, the graffiti videos, they’re on the same blocks. To me, it’s all one big street riding event. There’ll be days when I go out and ride, and my bike doesn’t even come off the ground—but that’s still street riding. It’s all one big mess, and it all works for the masterplan.

Can you shut it off? 

It’s over—we’re screwed. It’s basically an addiction.

What do you think has kept you with it?

I don’t know. Some of my friends have kids, some of my friends ended up in jail, some of my friends are dead, everybody has a route they take, but with some routes, the responsibilities that come with it are a little more difficult to handle. I just have my job, and I’ve got a girlfriend, so it’s pretty easy for me to go out and do stuff. 

I have friends who haven’t ridden in years, but they’ll still send me a text message, “I was just driving, I was on vacation with my girl, I saw this.” And will send me a picture of some crazy spot. And this dude hasn’t ridden in years. He doesn’t even own a bike and he’s still sending me a photo of a spot. It just doesn’t end.

You take a look at certain people… Nate Wessel, he builds skateparks. He loves riding so much, he builds ramps. Even Newrick—he sells mid-century furniture because he’s obsessed with architecture. It all fits. Style, fashion, the way shapes are… it’s something that goes a little bit deeper than just riding a bike. People love riding pools—there’s something about transition, and there’s something about the middle of America where it’s all old factories with metal ledges… it fits everybody’s psyche a little bit.

Does it come into your work at all? What do you do?

A little bit. I teach at a high school—special ed. I teach kids how to cook and home economics stuff. Survival skills. But the mentality I have with them—I advocate going on a lot of field trips, and being out in reality. This is what the world is—we need to go out and try new things. So it kind of fits with how I look at street riding. I’d rather not be in the same park—I’d rather be riding around and trying new things, going into different neighbourhoods and experiencing different cultures. 

For the new video we went to Japan a few times, and then we went to the Caribbean. No one goes to the Caribbean for bike riding—they just go on vacation because it’s warm and there are beaches, but I went down there one time, and I told everyone, “There’s an industrialised city in Trinidad. Let’s go.” We went on a trip, and everybody was blown away. It was like a miniature Manchester or a miniature New York City. It changed my whole concept of where people should travel to ride. 

And it’s the same as the school thing. There’s no reason we should be in a classroom everyday, we should be out in the world applying all the stuff that we’ve learned.

Do you think people are more closed off from that kind of thing now? Do kids go outside much?

It goes back and forth. Kids love video games, there are a lot of things that keep kids in the house. Outside can get kind of crazy if you’re young, but there’s also a lot of interesting stuff to get involved in. I’m not against skateparks, but to me, it’s kind of like sitting inside. You’re in a controlled environment, everything’s made for you, which is cool—but I’d rather be somewhere where anything could happen. I want to see people—see the world go by. 

I like getting kicked out of spots, and cars being parked in the way, as it makes you think about it more—you have to have social skills. You gotta flex your whole mind-set, everything you ever learned, in order to make riding work sometimes. First you’ve got to find the spot, then you’ve got to make sure you’re not going to get in trouble for hitting it. I like the games you’ve got to play when it comes to all that stuff.

Yeah, making the chaos work. I think I’m out of questions now. Any wise words to add?

Nothing wise is coming from me. 

AM:PM 4 is available now.

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