The most popular podcast in skateboarding is run out of a dining room in Venice, California. Two of the co-hosts, Roger Bagley and Kelly Hart, are also roommates who live in the house. The third host, Chris Roberts, lives just down the street and often rides his bike over for tapings. Roberts and Hart are both professional skateboarders, and Bagley is a cinematographer who has spent decades capturing some of the best skating in the world on tape. Appearing on the show has become almost a rite of passage among people in the skateboarding community, and guests as varied as Tony Hawk, Spike Jonze, and Lil Wayne have shown up to the living room, sitting at a modest wooden kitchen table for an interview, some of which stretch on for hours.
The Nine Club, launched in 2016, celebrated its 150th episode in April. From the beginning, the show has been a casual, if exhaustive, conversation between people whose lives revolve around skateboarding. The show, which can also be watched on YouTube, currently has more than 120,000 subscribers. Most episodes clock in at around two hours, although one earlier this year, featuring the pro skateboarder Mike Vallely, is more than five hours long.
When I first picked up a board in the mid ’90s, skaters were not a respected class. Most skateboarders over 30 still love to grouse about how tough they had it in their day, before skating was a global phenomenon with its influence bleeding out to every corner of pop culture. But being shunned has a way of creating a sense of camaraderie, and those years spent wandering the cultural wastelands served to strengthen skaters’ bonds with each other while making them eternally suspicious of outsiders. And despite skateboarding’s rapid ascent in the mainstream, it remains a nearly impenetrable culture for those not deeply devoted to it. The Nine Club, the tagline of which is “The Show That Has Skaters Talking,” offers a window into that world while remaining true to its wayward past.
That window is being opened at a unique time in skateboarding’s history — it has become one of the most popular sports in the world, set to see its Olympic debut next year, but most of the people who pioneered it are still around and are, for the most part, happy to share their stories. The Nine Club is taking advantage of their access to those people and in a way creating an oral history of skateboarding, as told by the people who lived it. “It’s rad to think that 30 years from now people can go back and watch Lance Mountain talk about how he came into skateboarding, and how he loves it and how it’s changed,” Roberts told me when I visited the Club’s studio-slash-living room.
Skateboarders are by nature transient creatures, regularly flitting from town to town in search of new spots. And while there are few other populations so obsessed with having a camera pointed at them, for skaters, those cameras tend to capture, you know, skating. Historical records not related to a specific trick at a specific spot are harder to come by, with the notable exception of shows like Epicly Later’d, a VICE series that profiles individual skaters. But Epicly’s output has always been sporadic, and will never serve as a comprehensive record in the way The Nine Club has been able to.
Initial expectations for the show were humble. The idea was spawned from another project Roberts was doing with pro skaters Marc Johnson and Kenny Anderson called The Back 40, in which the three would do short, funny skits for YouTube. Roberts wanted to do a podcast tied to the channel, but finding a time for the three to regularly meet up was difficult. “I lived out in Venice, Mark lived in North Hollywood, Kenny lived in Palos Verdes,” Roberts said. “Me and Mark filmed maybe two or three of them, maybe two came out, and it was just hard.”
Around this time Bagley had been laid off from his job at the skateboard distributor Dwindle and offered to help out with the show. “I was like, dude, why aren't you putting these out? These are great! And he said ‘Well, it’s hard to get Marc and Kenny involved, but I'd be down to do one if you wanna do it with me.’ So I was like, ‘Why not, fuck it.’”
The two set up some GoPro cameras in Bagley’s living room and, needing a guest, decided Hart would be a fine person with whom to start (he wouldn’t become a co-host until a few months later). They pulled him out of his room and started shooting. While the conversation was good, the episode never aired. “It looked crazy,” Roberts said. “I mean the GoPro footage, it was just nuts. We had like a wide-angle [lens] that [made it look] like security cam footage. It was insane.”
They reshot the episode with better cameras and published it to YouTube about three months later. Since that day in 2016, The Nine Club has published a new episode nearly every week. As Roberts puts it, “Seinfeld wouldn't have been Seinfeld if they'd just decided to come out with an episode whenever.” Along with that consistency, over the past few years the show’s subscriber count has climbed steadily, eventually spawning two spinoff series, The Nine Club Experience and 2 Dudes 1 Game.
About two hours before a show starts, Roberts, Bagley, and Hart meet up at the latter two’s house, a two-story gray clapboard behind a wall a few blocks from the ocean. Bagley sets up the cameras and curates the background set with items like magazine covers, pro model boards, and video covers related to the guest, while Roberts fiddles around with the microphones and sound equipment. Hart handles the lighting. Interview preparation is minimal; “we don't really do research,” Roberts said. At the taping I attended, Roberts sat at the table scribbling notes and tossing out offhanded questions about the guest to Bagley, who is essentially Odin but for skateboarding knowledge, up until about two minutes before Nick Dompierre, the guest, walked in. “We just throw whatever knowledge we have collectively at Chris so he has something to go off of,” said Bagley.
While the show is not scripted or rehearsed, as soon as the cameras turn on, the hosts have a singular focus. Roberts, who is tall and wiry and brings a natural comedic energy to the set, starts off each episode with a version of the same opening: Welllll, we are BACK, huh? We’re back at the Nine Club everybody. Today we have a special, special, SPECIAL, guest… The number of “specials” varies from guest to guest, seemingly dependent on Roberts’ whims. After the intro, which usually elicits a few laughs from the guest and co-hosts, the crew gets down to business.
The life of a professional skateboarder usually comes with the sort of anecdotes that would make celebrity interviewers drool, and Dompierre was no exception. He outlined his early years as a Boston teenager, his rise through the pro ranks, and his subsequent struggles with drugs and alcohol, which eventually put him in a coma and ended his skateboarding career. Today Dompierre is a successful model, YouTube personality, and health coach who still occasionally posts new skate clips to his Instagram account.
The conversations on the show are freewheeling, but tend to follow a similar format: how the guest got into skating, their first sponsors, stories from tours and life, and what they’re currently up to, with plenty of asides and good-natured meandering.
“Half the time I don't even know what I'm doing,” Roberts said. “I just sit in that chair and I just start talking and I think of stuff to say and I’ll crack a joke here and there. We talk about that person’s life. It’s not a joke, it’s serious, but when you can throw in some funny jokes and some random little quips... it breaks the ice, too. It’s like, dude, it’s just skating, let’s have fun.”
The lack of real structure, combined with Roberts’s slightly goofy, affable demeanor, often leads to off-the-cuff conversations about serious issues, as was the case in Dompierre’s episode. “I think of this show like therapy,” Hart said. “Because they get to come on and talk about the best times and the low times and then kind of just look back at it all and be like, ‘Wow, that’s what I went through.’”
When the skater Antwuan Dixon was on the show last year, he talked about his struggles with substance abuse and the ways he felt his sponsors sometimes glorified his image as a wild and troubled bad boy. In a 2017 episode, Jamie Thomas, a skate veteran who founded the company Zero Skateboards, talked about having once been so poor that he had to fight pigeons for pizza crust while living on the street in San Francisco. On the show last year, the Australian skater Dustin Dollin joked that the hosts were essentially counselors who should get paid for the therapy they provide.
“Some of the best comments we get is when we have somebody on who was a huge partier or alcoholic or drug addict, and they tell their story about how they cleaned up,” Roberts said. “You go look at those comments on those episodes and people are pouring their hearts out, like Dude, thank you so much. I’m this, your story helped me. And I’m just like, that’s incredible. Those people telling their story may help somebody. Even if it’s one person, it’s rad.”
The show also occasionally touches on some of the thornier issues in skateboarding. Despite its progressive veneer, skateboarding has long had a history with homophobia and racism, but its tight-knit, insular nature, coupled with a severe lack of criticism in skateboard media, means that it’s all too easy for the community to circle the wagons and protect one of their own, even when that person is accused of horrible things. One of the hardest episodes to watch consisted of a three-hour interview with the skateboarder Jason Jessee. A few months prior, Jessee had been the subject of an article on VICE, where I was the editor-in-chief at the time, detailing his use of swastikas in artwork and on clothing, his affiliation with a white-supremacist punk band, and his use of racial slurs and anti-LGBT language in magazine interviews. After the publication of the piece, he was publicly dropped by his sponsors, and some saw his appearance on The Nine Club as an attempt at rehabilitating his public image.
While The Nine Club did ask Jessee repeatedly about his past, much of the episode was congenial. The four chopped it up and laughed together and, near the end, Jessee told the hosts that he loved them. His responses to the questions about his past were mostly muddled and meandering, but the hosts seemed ready to let his replies stand without much in the way of a challenge.
“We did the best we could,” Roberts said when I asked about the episode. “We tried to ask him the questions that everybody wanted the answers to, and it’s up to that guest who’s sitting there to explain themselves, you know?”
“I think things would have been a lot different if he'd just started the show off with, like, ‘I fucked up, I’m sorry,’” said Bagley.
“I think ‘skateboard media’ just doesn't cover anything,” Roberts continued. “And then here we come along and anything that happens now, it’s like, ‘We’ve got to hit up Nine Club!’ We’re not journalists. We’re just skaters who sit down and turn the camera on and talk. Somehow we’ve become journalists [and] everybody wants to hear what we think. And it’s just like, dude. We’re just three dudes.”
The hosts admitted that Jessee’s supporters had advocated having him on the show, and that multiple people had told them this could be their “Oprah moment.” I don’t believe Roberts was being dishonest in his answer, but it did feel depressingly reminiscent of arguments made in more conservative corners of skateboarding: that everything is fine, that skateboarding is great as-is, and that suggesting things could be better is silly.
While Roberts is correct that mainstream skateboard media doesn’t cover much aside from celebratory announcements of new video parts and which skater is sponsored by what brand, on the margins, the skateboarding community is at least making some efforts at inclusivity. There are events like the academic conference Pushing Boarders, the second installment of which took place in August and featured panels exploring how “journalists [can] reflect the diversity of skateboarding today,” another asking how the sport can become less patriarchal, and a third devoted to allyship in skateboarding. There’s also queer skate companies like Unity, and queer skate magazines like Skateism and Cave Homo, all of which are both operated by LGBTQ+ folks and advocate for greater queer representation in skateboarding.
Victor Valdez, a gay skateboarder based in San Fransisco who helps out with Unity, didn’t think The Nine Club should have had Jessee on in the first place. After watching the episode, he felt that the hosts hadn’t pushed Jessee hard enough when he veered away from the topic at hand. “I think they could have pressed more to try to get specific responses around why he did the things that he did instead of getting excuses and sad stories,” Valdez said. “Because that [episode] was three hours long and it was really difficult to get, honestly, much information from it other than just a bunch of rambling stories.”
But some in the queer skateboarding community thought the hosts handled the interview appropriately. Jai Ledesma, a nonbinary skater also based in the Bay Area and lead instructor for the Skate Like a Girl program who watches the show regularly, told me “I feel like everybody in The Nine Club did a really good job steering that conversation and wanting to know who he is as a person but also address the giant elephant in the room.” The hosts, Ledesma felt, “steered the conversation to talk about that controversial Iron Horse [a biker magazine in which Jessee made several of his most inflammatory comments] interview. I was like, ‘Okay, he cleared up that he said all those things and he’s not denying it because we’ve all seen the interviews and the pictures that have come up.’”
After filming for the Nick Dompierre episode ended everyone stood up and stretched, slightly heated from sitting beneath the bright studio lights. The interview had lasted over two hours, with just a short break in the middle. I got the feeling they could have talked all night.
At its best, The Nine Club is an attempt to bring a deeper understanding of the people who shaped and are shaping modern-day skateboarding. After I had packed my things and said my goodbyes to the guests and Dompierre, the group was standing around the table, talking about the interview and the sport that has shaped them and so many others around the world into the people they are today.
There is an ephemeral quality to skating. Skaters do tricks at a spot, and then the people who performed them and the energy they brought to a parking lot, or a set of stairs, are gone, leaving behind only scratches and maybe a bit of wax. As was the case with Dompierre’s episode, the show picks up those spots’ forgotten moments, the journeys that brought the skateboarders there in the first place, and the stories told among friends while sitting around waiting for a trick to be landed. It’s the stuff that feels especially important to preserve in an era in which so much of skateboard media feels disposable: short clips posted to Instagram or the website of the skate magazine Thrasher, as opposed to fully thought-out videos released by teams, which have always been more likely to include behind-the-scenes shots of skaters cutting it up between tricks or just generally acting like idiots. The histories The Nine Club are committing to tape are the most exciting parts of skateboarding — and those parts quite often don’t include actual skateboarding.