They say cats always land on their feet, but I know of at least one Bird that has our feline friends beat. Kelly Bird started out as pro in the ‘90s and partied his way out of that gig earlier than most. Within three months on the job market, he landed the team manager role at arguably the best skate shoe company at the time. Eventually things went south and Bird’s attitude towards the job lead to him getting fired. He then proceeds to get hired as team manager of a startup shoe brand. He would later go on to become brand manager of this company—which went on to make some of the most popular shoe brands in skateboarding and released one of the most groundbreaking videos of all time. Some people have luck. Some people have skill. It’s safe to say that Bird has a little bit of both.
48 Blocks: Let’s start with Texas. Tell us about those early days in Houston.
Bird: I logged some serious time at the Skatepark of Houston, no question about that. I even lived there for a summer. Dude that owned it had this house on the property and he converted the upstairs into a sort of makeshift dorm and rented out rooms to all of us. We were all basically living in plywood boxes, surviving off Slurpees, corn dogs and Fritos that we got in exchange for doing manual labor around the park. Those were the days right there. It was either the skatepark or downtown for me most days. If you’ve been to Houston, you know it’s got one of the best downtowns for skateboarding in all of America. So having both places was a nice combo.
48 Blocks : If memory serves me correctly, you were on New School back then. How did you hook up with them and were they your first sponsor?
Bird: Circle-A / Poorhouse was actually my first sponsor. This dude Jamar Parish—he was one of Gavin and Shnurr ’s boys from AZ—his mom lived in Houston so he would come out and spend summers there. He got boards from Circle-A, so he put me in touch with Bob Shmelzer (yep, the freestyle dude) who was running it at the time. I did the whole sponsor-me ritual with him and started getting boxes soon after. A little while later, Shmelzer hooked up with some craze shop dude in Laguna Beach for some additional funding. They turned it into Poorhouse. Since that’s where it was based, I ended up living in Laguna Beach (with Shmelzer at that) for a while. During that time, I met Ronnie Bertino and Adam McNatt and started skating with them a lot. They were riding for Alva at the time as part of that “New School” push they were trying to do. So as it usually goes in situations like that, I eventually ended up leaving Poorhouse for Alva. Almost immediately after I made that move, Ronnie left for Think and Adam quit to skate for Powell. After their departures, Fallahee (the owner) decided to change the name of the company to New School to freshen up the image a bit (he cited that as the reason for Adam and Ronnie quitting), and by default, I ended up with a board. The graphic was Fat Albert and the gang, definitely my favorite graphic I ever had.
48 Blocks: Your most famous video part is from the Real video where you skated to Magic Carpet Ride. Give a little timeline of the progression from New School to Real.
Bird: A little while after turning pro for New School, I moved back to Houston for a minute. I had met Weiss, Justin Bokma and Thomas Morgan at the skatepark and thought they were pretty much the best dudes ever cause they weren’t afraid to party. We kept in touch, and when they told me they had bought a cheap beater and were planning on driving it from Toronto to Santa Barbara for that now legendary Powell contest, I convinced them to detour to Houston and grab me on the way. To this day, that trip is still one of the most ridiculous experiences of my life. Anyhow, as fate would have it, I collided with Salman during practice at that Powell contest. I was tripping cause dude was a big boy, and I thought he was going to toss me across the course, but he was actually super cool about it. Cut to three months later. I’m living in Toronto with Weiss and the boys cause they had just built this insane skatepark up there. The owner flew Salman out to do a demo at the park, and he and I reconnected there. He gave me his number and pretty much told me that if I wanted to ride for Real, he was down to help hook it up. That was it for me. I knew it was going to suck to quit New School because Fallahee had actually done a lot to help me out to that point. But when Salman put it out there, it was a pinnacle moment for me. I knew I’d regret not doing it if I didn’t. I went to Los Gatos and stayed with him for a while, went through the whole team tryout ordeal, and about four months after that was on the team. Looking back, it was a completely surreal experience. Seeing what SF could do to people during that era, I still feel blessed that I didn’t end up being a “corner kid.”
48 Blocks: Tells us more about your experience in San Francisco. Seems like that was a defining era for you.
Bird: After getting on Real, Jeff Klindt was cool enough to let me live with him. I want to say I lived at his place off an on for about two years. When I wasn’t touring or trying to live in Canada, Jeff always had a spot for me. He was cool like that. First, I lived in his apartment off Divisadero. Then he got a house up Castro that had a spare room with bunk beds and me and Carl Shipman held that down for a while. Those days were so sick. EMB, Wallenburg, Haight, Ft. Miley, Brown Marble, Black Rock, Marina, Hubba… that’s all it was, all day, every day. I was so blown away by all the amazing shit that was happening around me on a daily basis that I usually just ended up playing the sidelines a lot of the time. I met a lot of the people that are my tightest friends to this day and learned a lot about how to carry myself during that period of my life. For those reasons, it was probably the closest thing to a “college experience” I’ll ever have, and arguably a way more valuable one as well.
48 Blocks : After the Real video you sort of slowly faded off the radar. I think I remember hearing that you had an injury. But I’m not sure.
Bird: No injuries. Maybe to my liver and kidneys, but I never suffered a “career ender” or anything like that. Basically, I partied myself into a barrel. And that made it harder and harder for me to motivate and keep up with skateboarding’s progression. I was in a couple more Real videos after the first one, but not at the caliber I was probably capable of had I been a little bit healthier and more into it. I vividly remember sitting in Jeff’s office with him, Jim, and Tommy when they told me they wanted to make my “retirement” board. I respectfully declined, thanked them for everything, and that was pretty much the end of it.
48 Blocks: When did you move to Southern California and what took you there?
Bird: Towards the end of my run with Real, I had been bouncing back and forth between SF and San Diego quite a bit. I had lived in Pacific Beach with Dyrdek, John Drake, and Duane Pitre for a while and had met Ken Block during that time. He was always down for a party. And since the party was usually at our house, he was around a lot. Droors was well on its way to blowing up around that time, and DC was also starting to really take shape. Ken and I were always cool. So when he heard I was in limbo after Real, he hit me to come down and help with the team stuff for both brands. I don’t recall exactly, but it probably wasn’t more than three months between the “retirement” meeting at Deluxe and my first day at Droors / DC.
48 Blocks: What was it like transitioning from skater to company guy?
Bird: It was odd at first. I remember sitting at my desk and looking at the computer and thinking, “what the fuck am I supposed to do with this thing?” And, “what are the odds that Danny Way is really going to call me back?” There was a lot of stuff like that going through my head. I was really ready to get on with the next phase of my life though, and I think that helped me make the adjustment much quicker. I had (short) lived my pro fantasy. So I wasn’t bitter about working with dudes who were still living it, which I also think helped a lot too. I still got to travel, be around all my friends, and get all the free gear. So when you break it down, not that much had really changed anyway.
48 Blocks: The urban legend is that DC firing you was the catalyst for most of the team leaving and starting Lakai. Can you give us the official story of what transpired?
Bird: The catalyst for Lakai was a team meeting we had at Damon Way’s house about a year before it all went down. DC was killing it at that point, but they wouldn’t give the rider’s minimums. Dudes only made shoe royalties. So if your shoe was selling, you were psyched. But if you caught a dud, you weren’t making shit that year. Sometimes it was two years. So the argument was, look, any DC product that sells, at least a little bit of that is based on the merit of the team. So we should be getting something even if we do have a shoe that tanks. éS had just given Eric a lucrative contract which was based on that premise. And it seemed like it would soon become an industry standard (it did), but Ken wasn’t having it for DC. I know Rick and Mike left that meeting knowing they didn’t want to be there anymore. I can’t remember exactly how much time had transpired since that meeting, but one day I got a call from Rick and he was like, “can you come to LA and meet with me and Mike, we have something to tell you.” I knew exactly what it was as soon as I hung up the phone. When my transition was said and done, my relationship with some of the guys I had been flowing shoes to while working for DC made it easier for me to get them to skate for Lakai, but I definitely can’t say I was the catalyst for the initial idea.
48 Blocks: So when and how did you get involved with Lakai?
Bird: I didn’t leave DC immediately after they did. Ken and Damon had done a lot for me, so on principal, I felt a sense of loyalty to them. I was super bummed that Rick and Mike were no longer a part of it, but I was willing to stick it out at DC. Problem was, my attitude reflected my disappointment on most days. I wasn’t that easy to work with. I’m not sure if it was because of that, or because Ken felt like I was in on the whole Lakai thing from day one, but whatever it was I only lasted about a month after those guys broke out. Then, I was fired. I was obviously bummed, but at the same time it really motivated me to do what I probably should have done when Rick and Mike first told me about Lakai—offer to do whatever I could to help them make it work. It felt like forever, but exactly three months to the day I was let go from DC, I started my job at Podium. From that day, Lakai has pretty much been my life. At the beginning, I’d say Pappalardo and Welsh were the guys that I was able to get onto the team because of the relationships I had with them from Droors / DC. More recently, I made a pretty concerted effort to get the guys that make up The French Connection, The Royal Family, and Jesus Fernandez taken care of.
48 Blocks: What’s the difference between being team manager and brand manager?
Bird: I basically set the marketing budget, then manage every aspect of it from start to finish. I know how much I can use to pay team riders, so I work with them to make sure they’re happy and handle setting up the contracts with them. I know how much I can spend on ads, so I set the ad schedules and work with the art guys to dial in concepts and make sure we’re on schedule. I manage all the catalog production. Set up the shoots, prep all the product, help develop concepts, proof all of it, then make sure it gets to and from the printer on time. When that’s done, then I coordinate all the marketing materials for the sales presentations we do for our reps and distributors, and then do that presentation. I also manage all the POP and art requests. And then, in between all that, I help develop concepts for shoe projects (limited editions / series) and manage the development for all the clothing and accessories. Oh yeah, there’s the website too, which I also manage. Then there’s tours / demos, but it’s gotten to the point where I can’t be out of the office that much anymore. So I’m in the process of hiring a TM to get all that stuff back on track. I guess you could say it’s a bit of a one man show in a lot of respects, but honestly, I’ll never have a better job than this one.
48 Blocks: Since you are a shoe guy, let’s do some shoe top 5’s. Top 5 favorite lakai shoes, Top 5 all time favorite skate shoes, and top 5 all time favorite non skate shoes.
Favorite Lakai Shoes:
- Manchester Select
- Carroll Select
- Staple (Even though the shape sucked. Sit tight though, we’re about to do it right)
- Belmont Mid (also coming soon)
Favorite Skate Shoes
- First DC Howard
- Half Cab
- Sal 23’s
Favorite Skate Shoes
- Trainer 3
- AM 95’
- Puma Clyde
- Chuck T
- Jordan 1 (of course)
48 Blocks: Every now and then we’ll see a new Bird clip. You’ve still got those frontside heels for sure, how often are you skating these days?
Bird: Not as much as I should, that’s for sure. I know I’m going to look back one day and be really annoyed with myself for not doing it more when my body was still fully capable.
48 Blocks: I’m sure you get a bunch of sponsor-me tapes. What do you look for in a new rider?
Bird: I pretty much just need to see four things: pushing, a backside flip, a 360 flip and a backside tailslide. If you can do those four things properly, you’ll most likely end up getting some shoes.
48 Blocks: You have a reputation of being a man of leisure, give us your top three places to grab a cocktail and why?
Bird: Well, if I wasn’t married, it would be LA, NY, and Miami, cause that’s where the best pre/post-cocktail visuals are going down. Nowadays, it’s either my couch or one of my friend’s kid’s birthday parties. Not that mad at it though.
48 Blocks: Lakai always has sick concepts for their limited edition shoes. What goes into bringing those projects to life?
Bird: Me, Andy Mueller (Lakai Art Director), and all the shoe designers sit in a room at the beginning of each design season, toss all our ideas on the table, and try to make it happen from there. Once the ideas are floating, we go back and forth amongst ourselves until we either nix an idea completely, or mold it into a possible sidewalk sleeper.
48 Blocks: Are you the final approval on new designs and concepts?
Bird: For footwear design, it’s Aaron Hoover. But everything else is myself and Andy Mueller. If we agree on it, then it’s good to go. I couldn’t ask for a better dude to work with. I’ll throw an idea out to the guy, and an hour later he’s got ten options for me. Whatever feedback I give him, he doesn’t trip on me about it because he knows the name of every font ever made and can work Photoshop, Illustrator, and Indesign better than me. He just takes the input and shows me ten more options. If you’ve had any experience with art directors, you know why this sounds like an impossible truth.
48 Blocks: What was the most stressful thing for you during the making of Fully Flared?
Bird: I felt a huge sense of responsibility to make sure we actually sold an acceptable amount of the videos once it came out. I knew how much of people’s time, money, hearts, and souls went into making it. So I wanted to do my best to make sure all parties involved were properly rewarded for their efforts. Understanding the reality of video sales over the last several years, I lost a lot of sleep knowing what we were going to be up against. As the guy dealing with all the marketing, seeing sub-par sales of a great video would have been hard for me to deal with, and I feel like I would have shouldered a fair amount of the backlash resulting from that. Thankfully, it all worked out, and far better than I ever imagined. For all the stress, I wouldn’t change a single thing about any of it though. It was all well worth it in the end.
48 Blocks: I’m sure there have been some people approached by Lakai or that have approached Lakai that did not get on the team. Give us one big name that coulda, shoulda, or woulda been.
Bird: Jamie Thomas, crazy to think about what it might be like now had he said yes.
48 Blocks: If you weren’t involved with skateboarding, what do you think you would be doing right now?
Bird: Wow, scary thought. I think I’d be doing what a lot of people end up doing with their lives, wondering if it would be better had I chased my dreams instead of doing what society told me was the “right” thing to do.