Thankful For Keith — An Interview With Keith Denley

Intro + Interviews by Adam Abada
Headline Photo by Jason Lecras
Skate Photos by Pep Kim

The longer you stay in one place, the more you get to know the people there. If you’ve skated in New York anytime since the Autumn era, it probably didn’t take long until you ran into Keith. As around as he was, though, you somehow never got as much as you wanted. Closer friends saw him skate on trips or sessions between work, while co-workers got some of his hardest working hours.

The skating that did trickle out to the public was always timeless, though. As it turns out, one of those co-workers turned him pro. It is this kind of steady, thoughtful, genuine living that makes Keith’s personality and skating alike so delightful to be around. It’s been long overdue to hear, in his own words, what makes Keith …well, Keith.

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I wonder what percentage of QS readers already knows this info and what doesn’t. Let’s get the basics: where are you from and how did you start skating?

I was born in Queens, then moved to Sayville, Long Island, and started skating when I was about 11 years old. I started, like many people my age, from the Tony Hawk video game demo disc. After playing, my friend Eric was the first one to get a skateboard and then a couple people followed.

Shortly after, he wanted to have his birthday party at this skatepark nearby — Union Skatepark. 411 did a spot check on it. My dad and I went to Toys ‘R’ Us right around the corner to get him a gift, and I was like “Well, actually I need a skateboard for the party because it’s at a park.” He said “Ok, let’s get you one here.” I responded “Uh…actually there’s this skateshop called New School right around the corner.” He asked how much a board cost and I said uh…50 bucks or something, fully knowing what a complete would actually cost, but I didn’t want to blow up my own spot.

It came out to $160 and my dad was like “What the hell? For a skateboard?” He was a little bit bummed on that. But we got it and it was my first board that got me to skate consistently.

As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been skating in New York. Did you ever live anywhere else?

Just New York my whole life. As soon as I graduated high school – I was 17 – I moved into the Chapman apartment in Long Island City. Ever since then, I’ve been bopping around Queens and Brooklyn.

Never in Manhattan?

No, I never made it over there! I would have liked to, especially when I was hanging with Rob and the Green Diamond guys when Autumn [Skateshop] was a thing. Everyone over there lived within a couple blocks of the T.F. and I was super jealous. I just didn’t have the money at the time. Even now, where I kind of have the money to get an apartment in the city, but then I have a car and you have to pay for a parking spot that is basically an additional rent. At this point I’m used to the space in Brooklyn.

Do you have Long Island pride?

Not at all. It’s not a place I want to live ever again.

Not even a bit?

I like it a lot more than I did as a kid. It’s typical. Beautiful beaches and the land itself is great, but the people there…aren’t the best. Growing up, there was a lot of jock culture and racist shit that I didn’t really know how to identify at the time. Now, stuff will pop back into my head that was super fucked.

What was skating there like?

In my town, in the middle school-era, we had a little crew that would bike around with skateboards and tear up the town, get kicked out – all that stuff. It was cool and as we transferred into high school, people started dropping off. By the end, it was basically me and Brian Clarke, who is a year younger than me. As soon as we were old enough to get out and about, we would go to the city. I wasn’t really interested in skating Long Island spots; I was more interested in getting the hell out.

What about all-time Long Island skaters?

Pappalardo and Gino, of course. Those are the no-brainers. For locals who weren’t big-name pros growing up, I’d say Mike Lent, John Pierre-Vargas — he actually set up my first board at New School on the day of my friend’s birthday. All the Sauce guys. Chris Gorso, Rich Long, and John Oswald is so sick. Also, Brian Clarke and Quinn Sherman. Those are my dudes!

If you had to pick one: Gino or Brian Clarke, who is it?

I’m sorry, Brian. I’m going Gino all day.

Can you tell me more about leaving your town and moving into the Chapman house after high school? Sounds magical.

It was amazing. That was 2006. As high school was winding down, I was trying to figure out where the hell I was gonna go.

I was friends with Jake Johnson. He would come visit Long Island for parts of the summer. I remember being on AIM [AOL Instant Messenger] one day, and I got a message from Jake thinking about moving to the city. He asked if I would be down to try and get an apartment with him and I was like “Yeah, of course!” He told me his parents were not about it though, and asked if my parents would be down to be guarantors. I knew my family’s financial situation was not that great, but I was like “Hey mom, if I were to move to the city would you and dad be able to be a guarantor on an apartment?” She responded, “Of course not. No. Are you crazy?”

Meanwhile, Jake was already riding for Chapman and I had just gotten on. He was filming with Jeremy Cohan, who made Short Ends, and Jeremy lived on the fourth floor of the apartment we ended up moving into. The ground floor apartment opened up for $2100 bucks, about $700 a piece for three people. Our friend James wanted to go to film school at SVA, so we looped him in. Jeremy put a word in with the landlord and it was win-win for everyone.

A nice landing pad for a kid from farther out on Long Island. You’re still on it, but you’re in New York City.

The apartment was pretty nice, but Long Island City at that point was pretty barren and desolate. The only big tall building was the Citibank building. We had a roof where you could see the whole Manhattan skyline. Years later, it would all get blocked by residential high rises and other office buildings. At the time, it was very quiet and not much going on. A cycling cast of characters would crash on our floor.

What was it like being around Jake Johnson at that time?

It was psycho. We saw the trajectory from when we were young teens. He was mind-blowing then, doing P.J. Ladd stuff. Filming for Short Ends, we got to see him developing that third eye that he’s pretty famous for now. He was definitely getting influenced by Matt Reason. There was shit he would claim, and I’d be like “no way” and laugh at him, but he’d do it. That continued through filming for Mind Field as well.

Knowing you, it seems like you really love skateboarding. But you barely film and have never had a full part. Is that on purpose?

When I was younger and first moved to the city, I was “hungry” and wanted to film more. It just didn’t work out. I wanted to be gnarlier than I was, and tried things that I couldn’t do, and would never get footage. Then there was a period of time when I had a more “fuck it” attitude, and thought if it would happen, it would happen. It was an approach that I kind of disagree with now, but I was just skating and having fun. That was my priority then. Now that I’m a bit older, it would be nice to have a bit more footage of myself to look back on. I don’t regret it though. I had a good time skating and I really didn’t care for filming that much.

What about your brand new pro part?

When this pro thing came about in the last year-and-a-half, I had more free time and thought, “You know what? I’m not getting younger, let me try and get some stuff.” It started working out and one clip led to another. And that sparks you to get another thing to compliment that, and the ball starts rolling. I was going out with Josh Stewart, and he was showing it to Jahmal. He told me that he wanted to give me a board earlier, but also wanted to see me do some stuff.

I got out with Josh a bit more, and then I got out with Paul Young. It was mostly weekend warrior style. But there were times when it was really slow at work in the pandemic, and I’d pop out with my computer and iPad in case I had to get online real quick.

It was going smoothly at the beginning, then I started getting in my head and it got a bit more difficult. There’s a couple tricks that got away from me that I wish I got, but whatever, I’ll try and get them for another project. I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing after this part. It’s been working. I’m looking forward to skating.

You’ve been with Jahmal Williams and Hopps for a while. How’d that end up being your skateboard home?

I started working at KCDC in 2008 or 2009 — I was 18 or 19. And at the time, Jahmal was also working there. He was just starting up Hopps. We would skate the mini ramp at KCDC together. For a while, he didn’t have a team; he wanted to develop the brand before introducing riders. I know Jerry Fowler was on the original roster. Joel [Meinholz] and Steve Brandi came on after. I think he just appreciated my skating, so he started giving me some boards. Years down the line, he wanted to make it a little more serious and started adding flow riders and AMs. And we did a short video piece that came out in 2013. That’s when he officially introduced myself, Brian Clarke and Dustin Eggeling.

So what’s the deal? Do you consider yourself a bonafide pro skater?

I’m humbled and honored by it. Am I a pro that could be signed by any footwear brand? Of course not. I got a board in recognition of being with the brand for a while and doing my thing. I’m promoting the brand and am a brand ambassador, so I really appreciate that. First and foremost, I have a full-time job — that’s my priority. And then, anything I can do with my skateboard when I’m not working, I do.

Was there a time when you were younger and wanted to be a more “traditional” pro?

There was definitely a certain time when I first moved to the city and was trying to do the skateboard thing, and see what happened. As the years went on, I saw it wasn’t a viable option. I worked in skateshops my whole life. It got to a point that I saw I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t think I would want to do it as a full scale traveling pro. That wasn’t as important to Jahmal. What’s more important is people he respects, likes their skating and have a good personality.

I’ve interviewed a lot of skateboarders at many levels, and for many, there’s a big turning point of when it becomes more of an actual job to them. Do you think there’s a difference between that and what type of pro you represent?

There’s definitely a difference. Nothing has changed in terms of my psyche or how I go about skateboarding. I would say it does motivate me a little bit more to produce something and put in the best of my ability. I don’t want to be a deadbeat with a pro board not doing shit. I really appreciate Jahmal giving me this opportunity, so I’m going to put in my best effort to promote Hopps.

What’s your full-time job?

I’m a sales rep for Nike SB. I handle mostly New York and New Jersey.

I heard you were almost going to be a stockbroker at one point.

My first job when I moved to the city – and this is ironic because I moved to the city to get away from Long Island – was being a cold caller for a stockbroker in Long Island. And my daily commute was back to Long Island. Insane.

I’d get leads – a big stack of index cards with people’s names, net worths, and what companies they owned or whatever – and I’d get on the phone and start calling them at 9 A.M. There was a whole canned line that I don’t remember. I would try and see if they were interested in a potential opportunity in a new start-up or something. If they were receptive, I’d have the broker who is above me call them back to actually pitch them on the scale of whatever it was. It was wild.

I did that for a while, and they asked if I wanted to be a broker. So for a month, I learned this stack of info about securities and insurance front to back – it was seriously as thick as a Bible. I pass this exam and they were scheduling me for another. I started stressing. All I wanted to do was skate and this job was just supposed to support me. For a hot minute, I was like, “Shit, maybe I’ll be a stockbroker?” Then I snapped to my senses. I was 17 at the time and everyone was probably in their mid-20s. Typical assholes making a fuck-ton of money and keeping up with the Joneses. It didn’t appeal to me, and I didn’t want to be around those people.

That was around the time you were known to fall asleep on the subway…

Oh God.

Any specific stories?

Ok, I’ll say this one thing…

Yeah, you party, get drunk and fall asleep on the subway. Who hasn’t? One weekend, I was partying in the city — I don’t even know where it was. I lived in Long Island City, and I’d take the M train back up there. It was probably pretty late. I get on the train, am a stop away from my crib and pass out. I wake up and it’s eight in the morning and I’m in Coney Island. I hopped off the train out of shock before I realized it was heading back to Long Island City. So I’m in Coney Island waiting for the next train — still pretty out of it — hop back on the train and fall asleep again and end up in Astoria. I was awake by then. That was Friday night.

Saturday – the next night – almost the same thing happens. Except this time, I woke up in Coney Island and then stayed up and didn’t end up in Astoria. It was just one weekend; I don’t know what the hell we were doing. It happened twice in a row. I was like “You gotta get yourself together.”

What’s your advice as a pro skater to kids wanting to get the most out of skating?

Enjoy it. The time goes by fast. The whole filming portion of skating is important, especially if that’s what you want to do, but the most fun I’ve ever had is skating and kicking it with friends. Try to travel around skating as much as you can, especially if you’re younger. Appreciate it. I’ve met a bunch of amazing people through skating and there’s a bunch of things it’s brought me that I didn’t think could come from it, whether with work, friends, or random people. Use that to your advantage, especially if you’re in a city like New York. A lot of skaters in New York get these “ins” because you’re skaters.

Keith’s board is available at shops worldwide now. Also available on the QS webstore.

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