Moonlighting: James Bookert

Moonlighting is a column where I talk with musicians, guides and others within the cultures of music and outdoor adventures about their passions and pursuits outside of what they are known for.

I wonder how many skaters count Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael as their inspiration? 

Austin, Texas musician James Bookert certainly can. Catching the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shred all over Shredder on Saturday morning cartoons had a profound effect on a young Bookert, as well as catching OG skate crew The Bones Brigade mobbin’ in Police Academy 4 in flashes of neon and a wash of ‘80’s surf-metal guitar. Bookert was an early convert to the board life, with the DIY ethos and in-your-face creativity of the sport a natural turn-on. Looking at the world differently was encouraged and so was not conforming to any preconceived notions of rules or boundaries. The rebellious foundation in skating could also be found in his growing passion for music, with many of his first favorite bands coming from skate videos, which were still years away from being popularized in the culture by Tony Hawk and the rise of the X-Games. 

He experienced the penultimate mixing of the two cultures as a teenager where he was invited to skate at the Vans Warped Tour in San Antonio and got a backstage pass to see music heroes like Reel Big Fish, Millencolin and 88 Fingers Louie. He naturally gravitated to other skateboarders that had a musical streak in them, like Tommy Guerrero, Ray Barbee and Chad Muska. “That actually did have a huge effect on me musically. I even thought all musicians skateboarded,” laughed Bookert. 

Now in his late-30’s Bookert is still finding ways to look at the world differently through his music and skateboarding. Musically, Bookert is breaking out with his new solo project San Gabriel just as his widely known trashgrass band Whiskey Shivers announced its recent amicable hiatus. Known for his banjo prowess in Whiskey Shivers, San Gabriel sees Bookert taking the lead on guitar and vocals and crafting new wave-leaning pop ballads for melancholy dance floors, as experienced on his most recent shimmering single “Cruel.” 

Skateboarding only gets more challenging as you get older and Bookert seems up to it. He and a couple friends have committed themselves to landing 2021 kickflips for 2021 and the musician’s Instagram feed has as many videos of him grinding lips and landing tricks with friends as it does of him cruising new San Gabriel licks. Bookert still carries a board with him whenever he goes (he mentions skating on tour in the past with bluegrass guitar sensation Billy Strings and members of the band Cabinet) and a recent writing trip to L.A. with an old high school crew was paired with hitting skate spots around the city.  

All musicians certainly aren’t skateboarders but James Bookert shows with his style and creativity in both pursuits that maybe they should. The world would be a whole lot cooler if they did. 

The following is a conversation with James Bookert. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

Are you the type of guy who always has his board on them? 

Oh yes. I’m staying with a really close friend from high school and he does film out there, TV stuff. I basically have my core group of friends who I skate with, like my buddy Steve in Austin who I was just skating with last night. There’s him, this friend Ryan I’m staying with and Jacob. We pretty much all try to skate with each other when we can, even though we are all 35 or 36. 

There’s something we are trying to do which is 2021 kickflips for the year 2021. Right now I’m at 127, so basically I have to do 168 a month, which is about 6 a day. I had to take a corona test so I couldn’t leave the house and there are times I can’t do it, but last night I did 40 kickflips. I honestly have been thinking about doing a charity thing out of it, it’s kind of a fun thing to do and it holds me accountable for trying to skate. 

You’ve obviously been around the country a lot with all the touring you’ve done as a musician. Where’s some of the more uncommon spots you’ve been able to skate? 

The coolest one was there was an abandoned slab in Austin and we did a kicker to kicker over what must have been an old factory. So we built a flat bar and all these homey-built skate things on this big foundation of an old factory. All sorts of ditches and pools were there, the kind of shit you’d find as a skateboarder because no one else sees value in a drainage ditch. I could probably kickflip to fakie with that.

That’s the cool thing with skateboarding, everything becomes your immediate canvas in a way. 

Totally, it’s using something in a completely different way. It’s part of why I love it so much. What I think is so cool about it is that it makes you look at that kind of stuff differently. I can’t walk past a staircase or picnic bench and imagine someone doing a trick over it. I imagine if you are a rock climber you are doing the same thing. I think it makes you appreciate shit that can be completely mundane and I think music can be the same way, or even photography. You see something from a certain perspective and it has value outside of its intended value. 

Young Bookert at skating event

When you were growing up did you have access to other types of extreme sports beyond skating? 

I started when I was five years old. My parents were in the Army and we were on this base and I think I just saw this kid ride off a curb on a skateboard. But there was also Police Academy 4 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that legitimately made me want a skateboard for Christmas. I don’t think I ever stopped skateboarding and I think there’s pictures of me trying to ollie when I was five even though I had never seen anyone do it before. 

At 11 or 12 is when the X-Games came around and it got even more serious. We used to watch 411 Video Magazine all the time and then the internet came. I got pretty into both skateboarding and music and ended up qualifying for Warped Tour and got to skateboarding on their skate park team and got to skate for free, which was pretty badass. Getting into Warped Tour was a special thing because I always liked BMX and the team that I rode for, on their BMX team, was this little kid Chase Hawk who is now a complete pro BMXer and won Austin X-Games in 2014

When you are at that Warped Tour event, what was it like to mix with so many people in skateboarding that are both your peers and people who you idolize? 

I was so not the dude. Maybe everybody has it at some point, but I was good for my scene but I wasn’t that good overall. But when you find kids that are really good for their scene and break out into another scene? It was really cool and humbling, I got to meet Steve Caballero and Rick Thorne and Jason Ellis and all these cool pros. The coolest thing about it was seeing the music. I was 15 and my mom took me and I had a backstage pass. I was a teen that had full access to this huge thing and saw Reel Big Fish and Millencolin and 88 Fingers Louie. That actually did have a huge effect on me musically. I even thought all musicians skateboarded (laughs). 

Well Vans Warped Tour really blended those things so well together. There still isn’t really that many festivals that do it as well, consistently and long as Vans did. 

That was at the time when all this stuff was really counterculture. Most of these guys didn’t really break into the mainstream but they were in that culture from the beginning. At the time I didn’t think there’s big traveling music festivals. All those guys were on one tour, which would be really fun to do now. They actually didn’t end up having a street course at the event I was at in San Antonio, so they just had a collapsible metal vert ramp. They were traveling with this whole thing and it was totally fringe before any of it was mainstream. 

I was just a one-stop local thing. I honestly rolled around on the ramp because I wasn’t a transition skater and then just did street stuff with these kids and played SKATE. It was really cool but fully got smoked by these dudes who were really awesome. I watched bands and crowd surfed, it was pretty amazing. 

Who were some of the people who you gravitated towards in the skate world? 

Chad Muska was a big one and he had a team called Shortys. Sammy Baptista was big and Steve Olson, Drake Jones. Muska was cool because he also does music, I think he even played on all his parts in movies, from rapping to random instrumental music. It’s not music I would listen to now but at the time this dude is doing this whole artistic presentation in this broad sense. In fact, a lot of the people I looked up to I think did some art or graphics on the side.

Ray Barbee and Tommy Guerrero do their own music. Mark Gonzalez is a big one, his art is still really cool. This was before the internet though so you had to comb through the magazines to find their art and I read the notes religiously. A lot of the music I listened to came from skate videos too. 

Who is someone that’s been your favorite to have met and skated with? 

There was this kid when I was 15 named Kyle Gerard. Where I was from was like the country’s second largest retirement community and his grandparents lived there. One day he just shows up at this skate park and this was still at the time where I could kind of skate. Then this dude shows up and I’m watching him skate, it was like poetry and I was transfixed. 

Meeting Steve Caballero and Jason Ellis was cool. John Comer was a skateboarder who had a prosthetic leg and I met him and got to hear him talk about skateboarding and overcoming his leg. That was pretty cool.

Bam [Margera] came through before Jackass was a thing and he was doing a CKY tour. He did a demo with the band and they did a show at the skate park where they were playing on the ramp while he demoed. 

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