Deeper Understanding — An Interview With Charlie Birch

Interview by Farran Golding
Collages by Requiem For A Screen
Original Photos by Marimo Ohyama & Alex Pires

It seems like just the other day that Palace was a small U.K. brand buzzing with montages filmed on VHS tapes, and P.W.B.C. news segments aimed at a skate industry still coming to grips with how to use the internet. In the ensuing decade of successes, it has remained unshakably English in its vision — even the fact that Jamal Smith is the only American to turn pro for the brand rings of a certain “foreigners appreciating your homeland in a better way than you do”-type thing.

To the American eye, Palace rose to prominence in that void left by Blueprint at the onset of the 2010s. In the time since, the world of U.K. skateboarding feels like it became closer intertwined to our own. This of course is thanks to Palace, yes, but also because of things like Isle’s unanimously adored “Atlantic Drift” series, the Yardsale videos, Free becoming one of the best alternate channels for skate media, and the inspiring success of the Long Live Southbank campaign.

With little context for how the U.K. scene actually operates, we asked Farran Golding — the man behind many of the deep-dive features on the Slam City Skates blog — to interview Charlie Birch, Palace’s newest teamrider, who we don’t know all that much about on this side of the Atlantic ;)

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Am I right in thinking you and your older brother, Oliver, used to rollerblade before you started skating? What was the pinnacle moment of your rollerblading career?

Yeah, I did. I rollerbladed for like three years, I started when I was ten because I used to play ice hockey. That’s how we ended up getting into it. We played ice hockey, started rollerblading, then Oliver started skating and I started skating because rollerblading is shit.

My pinnacle moment? I don’t know, mate. I entered a competition when I was ten and I did pretty well. I got into the finals, but it didn’t get any better than that. I think I was still rollerblading a year into skateboarding, then I just skated because I enjoyed it. It was fun and the people I hung around with were nice compared to rollerbladers. That’s probably the main reason why I stopped, because everyone that did it was a dickhead, really.

I skated with my brother and his mates who were all older and they looked after me when we went out skating. That was the main reason that I liked it.

A lot of notable people who have been a part of Liverpool’s scene have come from the neighboring areas just outside of the city. You’re actually from Liverpool itself, so explain what it means to be a “woollyback?”

A woollyback is someone who’s not from Liverpool. Mainly, they’re from the areas around Liverpool, that’s who you’d call a “woollyback.” Liverpool is actually quite a small place, but it’s in a county called Merseyside. A lot of people can be from the Merseyside, but think they’re from Liverpool, I guess. A main way of telling that is if you’ve got purple bins or not. If your main bin is a purple bin, then that’s because it’s from Liverpool City Council. If you’re ever trying to take the piss out of someone who is claiming to be from Liverpool, you be like, “What color are your bins?”

What’s your earliest memory of visiting Lost Art and meeting David Mackey?

I remember visiting Lost Art for the first time with my brother when first I started skating. We went in just to have a look, but the second time I went there was to get my first ever board. Mackey and Ash Wilson [photographer and Lost Art lifer – ed.] were working. It was intimidating, as it would be as a little kid going into a skate shop for the first time but Mackey and everyone went out of their way to speak to me and made me feel welcome. After that, I was never intimidated about going into the shop.

From there, how long was it until you started riding for the shop?

Probably a year and half, maybe two years. They would sort me out, here and there, but I knew after like two years, I guess. I think they were going to a Vans Shop Riot comp or a trip, and I asked if I could go, and Mackey was just like, “‘Course you can go. You ride for Lost Art.” It was never that I asked to skate for them or anything, I might have been on before I even knew.

How has growing up around Mackey and the Lost Art guys shaped you as a person?

I don’t really know how to say this… I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for the people I had around me and supporting me since I was a kid. Oliver, then Mackey and everyone from the shop are also like older brothers. They’d help me out and push me. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. I’m pretty thankful for that chance to have older people show me what’s good and what’s wack.

“That’s why I did good in school, because it meant I could go on skate trips.”

After Lost Art, Flip would have been your first sponsor, which came under Geoff Rowley’s blessing. Even though it was through the U.K. distributor, it’s still pretty heavy to get that nod, especially when you were a little kid. How did that come about?

I’m not too sure. I didn’t know it was being talked about until I got asked. From what I’ve heard, Geoff sorted it out, then Mackey spoke to me and said he’d sorted this thing out with Geoff. I’d watched Geoff since I was a kid, so I was stoked to be able to do that. I didn’t really see him all the time, as much as I’d see Mackey, obviously, but the first time I met him, I was nervous. Then you get to know someone and realize they’re still just a normal person.

You’d have been what — 13 at this point?

13, yeah.

You got fully hooked really young; board sponsor, shoe company, even clothing. I know you had to dip out of school every so often to go trips. How did your school react to that? Your dad has always seemed happy for you to take any opportunity which has come up because of skateboarding.

Yeah, school was pretty supportive of that stuff, to be honest. They were down for me to go away on trips as long as I was doing okay. If I didn’t do well in school, I wouldn’t have been able to go skating, so that’s why I did good in school, because it meant I could go on skate trips. So, if it wasn’t for skating, I probably would have done shit.

My dad is an absolute legend. He would always back me. Not just with skating, but with anything I’ve done. He was like, “As long as you keep your head straight and do well in school, I’ll support you in whatever you want to do.”

Your brother told me that he remembers going to comps with you and seeing parents mouth off at their kids if they didn’t skate well.

Oliver was the opposite. He just made sure I was having a good time. He’d put me right, but he never had an attitude like those “skate dads” at all. We’d stand there at the sidelines and take the piss out of the skate dads and their kids.

He also wanted me to ask if you ever felt any expectation to be “good” — for lack of a better way to put it — as a result of progressing so quickly?

Nah, I was never trying to impress others or do it for anyone apart from myself. If I wanted to do it, I could do it. If not, no one was forcing me. That’s what Oliver always said. He always gave me support, but he was never pushing me to do anything I didn’t want to.

Did you enjoy skating comps back then? Can you remember the first time you won some money?

I did. It was fun and I was a kid, so I loved going mental. The first time I won a decent amount of money was the first time I went to Boardmasters. I must have been 13 or 14. I won like 200 quid and thought I was minted. Then, the next weekend, I went to another competition and won a £100, so I thought I was a millionaire. I’m not too sure what I spent it on, but it was probably Haribo and chocolate.

Getting more up to date, you moved to London for university a couple of years ago. Why London?

My auntie has lived here for about 30 years, so since I started skating, I’ve visited her when I had time off from school. Because I’d been coming here for so long, I already had loads of friends. It wasn’t a last minute thing either, I’d wanted to do it for years.

What are you studying?

I’m studying finance and I don’t know what made me want to do it, to be honest. I had an interest in it, but it was more because going to uni in London made it easier to move down here, and meant I wouldn’t have to get a full-time job, so I could skate more. Also, if I wanted to go on any trips, it would have been easier to get time off from uni than it would to get time off from a full-time job.

I don’t really get along with anyone on my course. I just go in, do the work and leave. I don’t have school mates. That’s probably not a good thing, but it’s a finance course so you can imagine the type of people who are on it. They’re all pretty boring, stereotypical uni students that go to freshers and all that stuff. I just wasn’t into it myself. Because finance is such a broad subject, there are modules that I like and some that I don’t. Like accounting — I fucking hate that — then there are others where you learn about shit that’s actually interesting.

I’ve just finished my second year, so I’m taking the third year off because it’s getting a bit stressful. I found I was either sacrificing one or the other. If I wanted to go on a skate trip, I’d be sacrificing uni, which would affect uni, or if I wanted to go on a skate trip, I couldn’t because I had uni shit to do. I thought, “Either do one or do the other.” I can go to uni whenever I want so I’d rather do this while I can.

Although you’ve basically been sponsored for longer than you haven’t, and even with deferring a year, I don’t think that you see skating as the be-all-end-all.

That was the thing, I had my dad and my brother telling me to think about the future. I might be sponsored but it doesn’t matter, really, you know what I mean? I was never counting on it. I always felt it would be nice if it happened, but never wanted to sack everything off just to skate, because it would be stupid to.

Did you quit riding for Flip before or after you moved to London?

Within a few months of moving to London, Flip stopped getting distributed by Shiner [the U.K. distributor], so that’s how it stopped. I hit them up for boards one day and they went, “We don’t distribute them anymore.”

“Sound, nice one.”

Even though I was still getting boards [at the time he left], the fact that Geoff wasn’t a part of it was definitely a big thing. I wasn’t as into it as I was when I was younger.

“Yeah, you guys should probably get off because they might come back and shoot the place up.”

Then, you had brief stint on Enjoi, right? Just before you got on Yardsale.

I was working at Mwadlands the day after I found out Shiner isn’t distributing Flip anymore. Ben [Raemers] came in and I was speaking to him about it. He said he’d speak to Louie [Barletta] and Enjoi. Then they sent me a box. I was riding Enjoi boards for about a month, that’s when Dan Kreitem [owner of Yardsale] hit me up. It was hard to leave Yardsale after, but it was on good terms.

You had a little introduction part for Palace in “Deeper Understanding,” which took you back to Liverpool and you skated lot of the spots you grew up with. Whose choice was that?

It was Lev’s idea. All that Japan footage and then Liverpool. It’s pretty interesting. But, yeah, exactly — the spot outside of Lime Street Station and a few others I was skating when I was 13, 14. It was nice to be able to do it in Liverpool, rather than London, because it’s where I’m from. You’ve got to take pride in where you’re from, la. Know what I mean?

Anything stand out from your recent trip to Detroit with Palace?

Yeah, I’ve got belter stories, mate! It’s one of the maddest places I’ve ever been to in my life. One night we went to this illegal after-hours club where they were selling drugs behind the bar. Everyone in there looked like a gnarly gangster. I was on my own with another guy, because Rory [Milanes], Lucien [Clarke] and Austin were on their way to meet me. So, it was me and this guy in this place full of gnarly people.

These two other guys started fighting and went outside. I’m sitting at the bar and heard like five gunshots go off. This guy had shot into the air and he came back in with his t-shirt off and blood on his shoes from the fight. He sits right next to me, starts rolling a joint and I’m like, “What the fuck…” The ashtray was in front of him and I’m all on edge trying to ash my cigarette in this ashtray.

Then the other Palace guys turned up with one of our mates from Detroit. He was speaking to the guy behind the bar, and he was like, “Yeah, you guys should probably get off because they might come back and shoot the place up.” That was a good moment to leave.

Let’s do some quickfire to wrap this up. What’s your favorite Liverpool slang?

“La” – I guess. That’s probably the one I use the most. Instead of saying “What’s happening, man?” You’d say “What’s happening, la?” Short for ‘lad.’

Top five Liverpool skaters?

Dave Mackey, Geoff Rowley, Howard Cooke, John Dalton and Luke Fletcher.

Favorite video part?

Heath Kirchart in Sight Unseen.

Favorite skate video and favourite U.K. video?

My favourite video in general is Mind Field because it was the first video I ever watched and I grew up watching it when I was a kid. That’s the best, definitely. And my favourite U.K. video is Blueprint’s Make Friends With The Colour Blue.

Favorite London spot and favourite Liverpool spot?

Favourite London spot…Anywhere in the street because the whole city has so many spots. Liverpool, probably Seel Street because it’s the go-to spot in Liverpool to warm-up, I guess. That’s where most people will meet up, apart from meeting up at the shop, you’ll meet up at Seel Street. It’s where we used to meet up at when we were younger anyway.

Favorite Lost Art teammate?

Mackey, for sure.

Greatest lesson you’ve learned from Mackey?

It’s just general ongoing advice on how to keep it real and not be wack.

Thanks to Farran for the interview, to Pires and Marimo for the photos, and to Requiem for the collages.

Loosely Related: An Interview With Lucien Clarke (December 2017)

3 Comments

  1. “it has remained unshakably English in its vision — even the fact that Jamal Smith is the only American to turn pro for the brand rings of a certain “foreigners appreciating your homeland in a better way than you do”-type thing.”

    agree on this 300% — so many companies are frontloaded with the same type of skater to match their look and it just gets hard to tell them all apart after the first two. jamal gets people hyped in a way that only jamal can.


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