Joseph Shabason :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

If you’ve ever stepped foot on a skateboard, you’re in the club for life. For Toronto-based saxophonist Joseph Shabason, this revelation provided the inspiration for his latest project: a new album-length score for the classic 1996 skate video, Toy Machine’s Welcome To Hell. With the blessing of company founder, pro skater, and visual artist Ed Templeton (who also provided album art), Shabason’s Welcome To Hell is a passion project dating back to his formative childhood memories.

While the sax player’s previous albums have focused on weighty autobiographical topics such as his dual religious upbringing and his mother’s experiences with Parkinson’s disease, here he decided to simply “pay homage to something that changed my life in a pretty major way.” Fluidly reinterpreting the groundbreaking parts from pro skaters such as Bam Margera, Jamie Thomas, and Elissa Steamer, Shabason both elevates and contrasts the action on screen with lush jazz-fusion songs performed by a nine-piece band.

As a father in his early 40s, Shabason has maintained his love of skateboarding, and still gets out for regular sessions at his neighborhood park. Connecting for a video call from his home studio, he shared his thoughts on the enduring influence of Welcome To Hell, fanning out during interactions with Ed Templeton, and how old dogs can still learn new tricks. | j locke

Aquarium Drunkard: Hey Joseph, how’s it going?

Joseph Shabason: Hmmm, how am I doing? My kids are crazy—just completely, unbelievably full-on nuts. I just got back from a little tour, which was my first real one since the pandemic. It was fun to go out on the road for a week and kind of just dick around. I went to Maine and Vermont, ate oysters, played in barns and saunas. It was good!

AD: How did you start skateboarding?

Joseph Shabason: I grew up with a friend named Jeff. His brother was five years older than us and he was the most impossibly cool dude. He was handsome, he BMX’d and rode a skateboard, and he listened to the coolest music. He was the one who showed us Guns N’ Roses and all of the first cooler bands that I heard when I was in grade five or six. I remember listening to “Get In The Ring” and I was like “Oh my god, this is so bad and cool and exciting.” 

Around grade seven I decided that skateboarding would be a cool thing to do. I borrowed Jeff’s board and just kind of taught myself. Me and some friends tried to learn how to ollie, and then it was game on. It took over my life for a pretty long time.

AD: Why is Welcome to Hell such an important video for you?

Joseph Shabason: I was thinking about that. It was partly how old I was—probably 14 or 15 when the video came out—because you’re so impressionable at that age. I was coming into my own as a young man, getting out of that tween adolescent phase. I was so into skateboarding and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Then this video comes out that has the coolest skaters, the coolest music, and it’s probably the most aggressive skate video that had come out at that point. I might be missing something, but from what I remember I had never seen anything that full-on before.

You had Jamie Thomas bombing through L.A. with a Bic’d head, shirtless, doing these huge backside 180s over those wheelchair ramps to rails. The gaps and the rails were bigger than anything else. I was just getting into skating, so this showed what was possible and how gnarly it could be. It was also at a moment when I didn’t have a job, so my summers were endless open time. I would hang out in my friend’s basement, and every day we would watch [Welcome to Hell] and go out and skate, then come back and swim, and watch it again. For a summer it was pretty omnipresent in my life, and it seared itself onto my mind.

It was an amazing time in skateboarding, but you still had to be a punk to do it because there wasn’t any money in it yet. This was right before Muska exploded and massive shoe deals happened. It was on the cusp of a lot of big things changing, and I think [Welcome to Hell] was one of the first forays into a modern age.

AD: I rewatched Ed Templeton’s Epicly Later’d, and remembered him talking about how Jamie Thomas basically took the wheels for that video.

Joseph Shabason: I would love to know what Jamie thinks, because as much as Toy Machine is Ed’s company, Welcome to Hell is Jamie’s video.

AD: For sure. The bail section and the big rails are totally his thing.

Joseph Shabason: All of it. He was doing most of the filming too! I remember watching Elissa Steamer’s Epicly Later’d and her talking about Jamie coming down to visit her in Florida. He would say, “OK, let’s film.” Now parts will span a year of filming, but back then it was a weekend. They would put that in and it would be so fucking cool.

AD: That was the best because you’d see them pushing, you’d see their style. It was more vibey than just 100 bangers in a row with super tight editing.

Joseph Shabason: When I rewatched Welcome to Hell for the first in-depth way since I was a teenager, I realized that 85% of the tricks would not make it into a modern skate video. At the time it was the gnarliest shit, and what people have taken and expanded upon is amazing. You look at it now and it still rips, but it’s pretty basic by today’s standards.

AD: It was mid-90s ripping.

Joseph Shabason: Yes, 100%. It’s still fucking cool watching those skaters, but you wouldn’t put a straight 50-50 down an eight-stair rail in a video anymore.

AD: When you started writing these songs, did you have something specific in mind for each part, or even to sync up with certain tricks people are doing on screen?

Joseph Shabason: I’ve been doing a lot of scoring work, so I decided to do it to picture so that big tricks were really gonna land. Then I got into [Welcome to Hell] and realized nothing was synced up to the music. In all the videos now, all the tricks are synced to downbeats or whatever. [Welcome to Hell] was a free-for-all, so to try to extract some kind of tempo or beat would just make these songs sound insane.

So I kind of pivoted. Rather than trying to be very specific about hitting things into cuts, I wanted to think about each part, and then write a song about how that skater’s part and style makes me feel. I did some things that are really on the nose, like for Jamie Thomas there’s a driving, relentless, energetic song. Then there are things that act like counterpoints. Donny Barley is an aggressive skater, so I decided to set his part to something ethereal and dreamy. How would that make you feel? Those were the decisions I made about the broader strokes, rather than just going in and scoring the shit out of every beat of action.

AD: I love how the bail section has extremely mellow music.

Joseph Shabason: The bail section was a really similar thought process. I wanted to do something completely different from the music that used to be there. Part of the reason why I thought of doing this album was because someone sent me a video with my music in it. It was the biggest skate shop in Miami, and they had taken one of my more ambient tracks with guys ripping around the city. I thought it was really neat, and realized this kind of thing could work. That video was on Thrasher, but then they took it down for some reason!

AD: I read that Ed Templeton gave his approval for your album. What was it like working with him?

Joseph Shabason: I felt like a 15-year-old fanboy, even though I’m a 41-year-old man. Things become crystallized in your mind at a young age, and to me Ed is this impossibly cool skater, artist, and company owner. My favorite thing to wear in high school was this Toy Machine hoodie with an alien. I’ve been engaging with him directly or indirectly for most of my life. 

When I started working on this album, I realized it was basically dead in the water if I couldn’t use the video. I messaged him on Insta and he wrote me back the next day. Ed is the coolest, most gracious, wonderful guy. He contributed album art, which feels totally insane. I really, truly felt like I was talking to one of my heroes. I was trying to be cool about it, but also in my mind I was thinking “Wow, I fuckin’ love this dude.” I love his skating and I love his photography. He was responsible for changing the ways skateboard ads looked in the ’90s. The team aesthetics were different It was just all so cool.

When you rewatch [Welcome to Hell] and think about that team, they were totally different. In the ’90s, skateboarding was pretty macho. Even looking at Zero, to this day, you can think “OK dudes, you’ve got your tattoos, you’ve got your black jeans, you’re wearing your belt. We get it.” Toy Machine always felt very punk to me, and looking back at it now with a new vocabulary, it was a pretty queer team too. You had Brian Anderson, Elissa Steamer, and Ed making this art that wasn’t quite homoerotic, but gay-feeling skateboard ads. He would get called an [f-slur] in magazines by all of these skaters, but he said “fuck it, this is my aesthetic.” That’s part of why I think he’s a legend. He was bucking that macho skateboard stereotype before most people were, and he was thriving.

AD: Can you tell me a bit about the recording process? Who was involved? Was it recorded in your garage, where you’re sitting right now?

Joseph Shabason: Yeah, we recorded it here. I did these initial sessions with Kieran Adams and Phil Melanson where we just pulled down a projector, played the skate video, and went for it. Then I decided to write songs based on those jams. It kind of worked, but I wasn’t feeling super inspired by what came out of it. I sat and watched the parts and tried to write songs that I felt were representative of the skaters. Then I had another session with Kieran, Bram Gill, and Thom Gill as a rhythm section to flesh things out.

From there, I just expanded upon things. I got Felicity Williams in to do some singing, I got Hugh Marsh playing violin, Michael Davidson playing vibes, and my friend Vince Spilchuck playing trumpet. I had this idea that a lot of the songs would have longer, through-composed melodies. It wasn’t repetition, the parts just kind of built and bloomed and expanded onto each other. 

I feel grateful that I could make an album here, because ultimately we had a nine-piece band. We didn’t have to do overdubs anywhere else, and that was a big confidence booster. I realized I could make a bigger record here, and that it can work. It was fun.

AD: Was this the first time you made a full record in the garage?

Joseph Shabason: No, I’ve made other albums here, but nothing on this scale. Nothing with as much live drums, percussion, and piano. Just saying “I got this” was really exciting.

AD: Your albums are often autobiographical. What inspired you to look back at your experiences as a skateboarder?

Joseph Shabason: It was less autobiographical than working within a framework. I find that gives me a kind of focus that I don’t get from writing willy-nilly. I also didn’t want to do another heavy, autobiographical album about religion or my mom’s Parkinson’s disease. That was really good and it felt like music therapy, essentially, but it wasn’t what I wanted this to be. 

I went for a walk and thought about what I liked and what got me excited these days. Then I realized it was skateboarding, full stop. My wife makes fun of me because every day when the kids go down, I get on the couch and use one of those Rogers voice remotes where you just say the thing. I’ll say “Thrasher skateboarding YouTube” and get to see what’s up today.

I realized that if I’m going to exist in a framework and engage with something vital and exciting to me, skateboarding is it. Then I had to figure out how to do that, and the idea came to my mind. It felt fun and nice, and also got to pay homage to something that changed my life in a pretty major way. Getting to engage with it as an adult instead of just revering it as a child felt like a good thing to do.

AD: Are you skating much these days?

Joseph Shabason: You know, I took a break from it for a while. I skated until I was in my early 20s, but it became this thing where I was worried that if I broke my wrist, I couldn’t work. I made so little money that not working for two months wasn’t a possibility. Now I can do enough work on the computer that it would be a hindrance, but not the end of the world. So now, since I started up again four years ago, I always wear wrist guards.

I can’t skate transition, but I said “fuck it! I’m gonna learn how to rock ‘n’ roll to fakie.” I ate it so hard on a three-foot quarter pipe that I nearly broke my elbow. Then I said “fuck it! No more.” That lasted for about a year, and then I said “I’m back! But I’m not going to do any transition.” I’ve been skating ever since, but just street: ledges, little sets of stairs, that sort of stuff, and I fuckin’ love it so much.

AD: Are you goofy or regular? 

Joseph Shabason: Regular.

AD: OK, so that’s a noseslide in your press photo for this album.

Joseph Shabason: [Laughs] Totally! I knew you would know that. That’s the park just up the street from my house. They have these two benches on either side. I actually saw some Toronto crew that was filming there. I watched this one dude do bluntslides and that was properly exciting to see. We go skating there all the time. I can do a few things: noseslides, boardslides, lipslides, 50-50s, 5-0s. It’s just a great little spot in the neighborhood. 

My body is angrier at me now when I go skateboarding, but it’s so exciting and punishing. You have to try over and over again for so little reward. That’s such a cool counterpoint to everything else that exists in life. Everything is like “quick, now, I want this!” When you’re skating you have to slow down and just commit yourself to doing something over and over and over again. And it is a lifelong hobby. As much as I’ve tried to get rid of it, it keeps poking me and telling me “you love this too much to stop.”

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