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Tommy Guerrero Creates Lo-fi 'Music From the Earth'

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Superstar skateboarder and talented musician, Tommy Guerrero sits inside of a studio in Berkeley, wearing a black Thrasher hoodie and glasses.
Superstar skateboarder and talented musician, Tommy Guerrero at Wyldwood Records & Relics. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

View the full episode transcript.

As a kid in San Francisco, Tommy Guerrero would stand on his skateboard, sliding down the steep hills of San Francisco slalom style. He’d dodge the dangerous objects in traffic and aim for the lips of the driveways he’d pass, going off them in attempts to catch air.

This skillset allowed him to win contests, have his own signature board, and turn pro before he could legally buy a beer. Instead, that first check from being signed as a professional skater was spent on a four track recorder and a drum machine so he could make music.

Tommy Guerrero catching air.
Tommy Guerrero catching air. (Grant Brittian)

Skating is where Tommy earned his name. As a teenager and young adult he was a part of The Bones Brigade, a crew of skaters put together by the Powell Peralta skating company, that consisted of Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen, amongst others.

Now 57, Tommy still skates, although it’s more of just a kick and push on smooth pavement in the park, with an occasional ollie here and there.

But Tommy, who grew up playing bass, never let music get too far out of his purview. And the investment he made in his music career is paying dividends.

For over two decades Tommy has been producing Lo-Fi, boom-bap, jazzy, hip-hop, instrumental music where he plays every instrument. His music is cerebral, and his songs have titles that he pulls out of the ether. He’s tuned in to the cosmos, as well as the popular trend of listening to vibey sounds. Plus, he’s a dad, so it helps that he’s tapped into the culture.

Tune in this week as we discuss music, skating, San Francisco culture, and Tommy’s philosophies on fatherhood.


 

Episode Transcript

[Music ]

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: What’s good! My name is Pendarvis Harshaw. Welcome to Rightnowish, thank you for tuning in. A little about me, I like reading, writing and chill vibes. 

In an effort to ensure the vibes are as chill as can be, I listen to a lot of Lo-Fi beats. They’re good background music, real cerebral stuff. They allow the mind to wander without having a whole bunch of lyrics being thrown at you. 

I’m not the only one on this wave. There’s playlists on every platform dedicated to boom-bap hip-hop instrumentals that toe the line of jazz. 

In digging through these lists, I kept seeing the name Tommy Guerrero pop up. And then one day I stopped by a friend’s office and saw his name again, this time on a vinyl record. I took it out the sleeve and put the needle on the album. While I listened I also grabbed my phone and looked him up. No way this could be the same Tommy Guerrero who… It is. 

Yeah, that Tommy. The world-renowned skateboarder who turned pro as a teenager. He was an original member of the Bones Brigade, a nationwide skate crew put together by the Powell Peralta Skateboard Company.  

[Skateboarding Sounds]

While he was there he skated alongside Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk, amongst others. Tommy is a master of the art of street skating. He’s a San Francisco legend and, evidently, he’s a really dope musician.  

We talk about all of that and more, right after this. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Cool. Um, if we could start by introducing yourself. Your name, your age. Where are you from? 

Tommy Guerrero, guest: My age!?

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah.

Marisol Medina Cadena, host: You could say a range…

Tommy Guerrero: Uh, yeah a range.

Marisol Medina Cadena: Or decade!

Tommy Guerrero: A range from old to older. Uh, my name is Tommy Guerrero. I’m from San Francisco, California, USA, planet Earth. At the moment I am 57 years old. 

Pendarvis Harshaw:  A point of clarification, there’s a difference between, like, bombing down a hill. 

Tommy Guerrero: Yeah. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: And, uh, kind of weaving. 

Tommy Guerrero: Yeah, totally

Pendarvis Harshaw: How would you describe…

Tommy Guerrero: I always like to access the driveways and the, and the curbs, and the stairs and kind of hit them as they were obstacles, you know, um, instead of just flying down the middle of the street, which both is fun, but for me, uh, all of the, you know, excitement was in how many different elements could you hit on the way down a hill, and what could you do on those objects? You know, that was… that was my fun.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Turning the geography of the street into your obstacle course.

Tommy Guerrero: Yeah, completely… Using the natural environment and just sort of transcending what its intentional purpose was, is, uh, was super fun and, you know, and you know challenging, of course. Yeah, I think it’s all of it.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Brings back memories of me, like on a BMX and using the lip of a parking lot. Uh, sorry. The parking lot…sorry the parking -what’s that?  Driveway!

Tommy Guerrero: Yeah, that’s that’s exactly that was that was our ramps.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah okay, I’m familiar um… If the city’s streets were a person, how would you describe them?

Tommy Guerrero: That’s a hard, hard question. That’s interesting. Um. Rough? Uh, worldly. Um. Also, a bit of anti-authority. Uh, I think that’s some of the things come to mind.

Pendarvis Harshaw: I’ve seen that in San Francisco as well.

Tommy Guerrero: It just had a different, a really different sort of, uh, energy to it than, than most cities that I’ve been to. Had. Yeah. It’s changed quite a bit. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Keyword. 

Tommy Guerrero: Yeah

Pendarvis Harshaw: In the summer of 2023, there was an incident at the annual Hill Bomb Day where 117 young people, including skateboarders and onlookers, were arrested near Dolores Park. Um, skating in urban areas has always been heavily policed. I’m wondering if anything has changed now, especially given the change in demographics in the city when it comes to policing.

 Tommy Guerrero: It actually seems worse. You know, we used to get tickets all the time and harassed for skating by cops, but it seems like now it’s… it’s so strange. It seems like it’s perceived as a huge threat. And I understand for the safety of everyone, you know, that they got to do what they got to do to some degree. But whenever they show up in force and in full uh uniform and with all of their batons and weapons, they just escalate it into a violent situation. It’s silly. 

You know, you have those people out there probably under 18. You know, they’re just kids lashing out, having fun. Um, and they… they have to be approached that way. You know, and there has to be some understanding. But there’s also the fact that, you know, then the skaters get out of hand, too. You know, there’s a lot of energy. You put all that energy in one space, you know, it’s going to explode.

 Pendarvis Harshaw: Is there a way to have a happy medium to have like some…

 Tommy Guerrero: There is…

Pendarvis Harshaw: …a presence but not be over authoritative…

Tommy Guerrero: If it were um, sort of, um, sanctioned, uh, by the city. And their presence is there but not felt necessarily, um, I think… I think there would be a definite happy medium compromise between skaters, between the, you know, law enforcement and, you know, and the city itself. And, you know, the thing is, you could put as many skate parks you want throughout the city. It’s not going to stop people from street skating. It’s just it’s not going to… It’s not going to happen.

Pendarvis Harshaw: With it being theoretically sanctioned by the city, wouldn’t it lose some of its edge?

Tommy Guerrero: It would but I think, it could even become a, um, an actual real event, though, you know? 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah. 

Tommy Guerrero:You know, helmets would probably be introduced for people under 18 and, you know, which would be just smart. Yeah, yeah. [laughs] You know, I mean, it’s sketchy. They’re flying. They’re going so fast. It’s, you know, you see, and people step out into the street, you know, and because, because of all the excitement, they want to be part of it, whatever it is. And you see people get hit and then, you know, the skaters are going to just take the brunt of that because they’re doing 35, 40 miles an hour.

Pendarvis Harshaw: There’s so many parallels. I was thinking about sideshows where you’re….

Tommy Guerrero: Yeah, Same. Same thing.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah. So growing up watching sideshows, I’m like, dang, these drivers should be sanctioned somewhere. And also professional drivers, stunt drivers in Hollywood. 

Tommy Guerrero: Right. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: It could start with the city recognizing them, and then it loses its edge. And maybe people will lose their interest for sure.

Tommy Guerrero: you you run the possibility of it being and yet being branded and then, you know, sponsors and all that nonsense, and they’re like, uhhh, and it becomes a second…

Pendarvis Harshaw: The sideshow presented by a tech company. 

Tommy Guerrero: [laughs] Yeah. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Before we get to music, um, you still skate?

Tommy Guerrero: When I can. My knees are really fucked, um, kind of bone on bone, like, there’s no cartilage. And so I… it’s difficult. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: When you do skate, what spots do you hit?

Tommy Guerrero: Actually mostly uh, I’ll go to parks now because it’s easy on the body because, uh, street skating hurts, like pushing, hitting curbs, aw man, it’s so much harder on the body because… like, my right Achilles has been jacked for about 20 years, so sometimes it’ll get inflamed to the point of like, you know, it’s hard to walk. And it’s my pushing foot, so that makes it real difficult. So it just depends, um, you know, on, on the day, the body, the mood the body’s in. So I like to go to the parks because you just kind of roll over everything, you know, there’s nothing, um, abrupt, there’s nothing harsh about it.

Pendarvis Harshaw: And nowadays it’s just like kick, push, smooth pavement. 

Tommy Guerrero: Once in a while I throw an ollie. That’s… that’s the one thing that’s still really fun, try to try to crack an ollie and see if you can feel that weightlessness. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: When you’re out… 

Tommy Guerrero: It’s beautiful 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Do folks recognize you?

[Music]

Tommy Guerrero: if they’re real. If they’re like hardcore skaters, they know who I am. But if they’re young and just kind of getting in it that they just like, ‘who’s this old guy?’ I’m old and broken. So, you know, don’t expect anything. If you see me at the park.

Pendarvis Harshaw: We can talk about skating all day. Yeah, yeah, I’m here to talk music as well. 

Tommy Guerrero: Cool. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Um, love, uh, a number of your projects. Um, what I found really fascinating is the fact that you not only are a bassist, you play all instruments.

Tommy Guerrero: Yeah, yeah, pretty much everything on my records, depending on the records. You know, um, my last record that I just dropped, Amber of Memory, I played everything on it. Um, and some of the stuff I use drum machines, you know, like 70s drum machines, like vintage stuff I play.  

You know and the thing is, I know what I’m capable of, so, I don’t try to stretch out of those knowledge base that I have is as well as, um, skill. So I work with the tools that I know I have to create something that I think is, you know, when it gets to a point, like, okay, this is I like this, this is good and has a good feel about it and the emotional content is there, that’s the most important.

So it’s not as though I am an accomplished-anything. You know, I could sit on drums and I could play a beat. I could play my bass. You know, I grew up playing bass, so I’m more of a bass player. But guitar happened out of necessity when I was creating all these, all these beats for, uh, these guys who were rappers. And this is the early 90s and then nothing worked out. So I had all these songs and beats, but I needed some type of voice. And so the guitar became the voice, and that’s kind of how it all kind of started.

Pendarvis Harshaw: The.. the guitar being the voice. What is it saying?

Tommy Guerrero: it’s my way of trying to connect with people and trying to, uh, kind of, uh, express myself in a way without words, because words always fail. Um, so I think there’s an emotional component that people, you know, gravitate to because they can feel that there’s an emotional happening in the music. And so I think, I think, I’m also trying to figure out what I’m trying to say as well. Um, so yeah, it’s still… it’s a process.

Pendarvis Harshaw: You say that as if you’re not nice with words. I mean, like great with speech, but also the names of your songs… poetic. LIke, where does that come from?

Tommy Guerrero: Like everything, the way I record, I just.. I’m in the moment. I start recording and what you hear, there’s no I don’t do demos. I don’t do scratch tracks. I don’t do anything. I just go with what I’m doing in the moment and that’s what you end up hearing on the records.

[Music] 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Your latest work, Amber of Memory

Tommy Guerrero: Yep.

Pendarvis Harshaw: It seems a little more somber. I listened to it while taking a hike up in Joaquin Miller. 

Tommy Guerrero: Oh, cool. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: And I was like I need to get away. I need to release, and I listened. I was like, wait, this is a little sad. I need to step back a little bit from this. What was going on with that project?

Tommy Guerrero: It’s funny that you say that because, uh, it was, uh, recorded, written and recorded during the pandemic. It started mid 2020 and it ended up, uh, in the beginning of 2021. And I sat on the record. I didn’t, you know, obviously, because I just released it. So I sat on it for a couple of years because I wasn’t quite sure, because it’s not my usual M.O., you know, I gravitate more towards, like the funk, soul, jazz, surf, Ethio jazz, you know, that world. Like, like, it’s like music from the Earth is what I kind of think of it as. And then I on… on this stuff, though, I gravitate, I went more towards, um, stuff that like kind of 80s, you know, it feel…

[Music]

Tommy Guerrero: I actually set out, I’m like, I want to make something kind of beautiful. And because we are in these times, there’s so much ugly, I want to try to counter that, what’s happening right now. So as I started recording, I did start to realize that there was so much sadness in the music. I was like, ‘oh wow’ and that was another reason why I sat on it, because I was, you know, trying to make this sort of joyful, beautiful a little more, um, sort of ear candy, you know? Um, and it just is, there’s so much sadness in it, and melancholy, I was like ‘ahhh wow’

Tommy Guerrero: I had a hard time with myself, kind of struggling with releasing it, and my friends were like, “You’ve got to release it, man.” And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know,’ and now I’m way more comfortable with it. Yeah. And it’s again, it’s a… it’s a bit of a step outside of my sort of normal mode.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Backtracking in time a little bit.

Tommy Guerrero: All right.

Pendarvis Harshaw: There’s a story about your start in music independently, and how it was supported by your work as a skateboarder. Bring me back to your first check as a professional skateboarder.

Tommy Guerrero: Okay. So I got my first check. Well, I think I was 19, and I moved out of my mom’s home. That was the first thing I did. I was like, okay, I’m not going to be a burden on my mom anymore now that I, you know, have a j-o-b. Uh, and so I moved out, moved in with a friend, slept on the floor, and I bought, um, a four track and a drum machine with my first paycheck.

 Tommy Guerrero: For whatever reason, I’ve always had this need, this necessity to make music whether it was for consumption or not.

So, yeah, I bought a four track, my drum machine. I had my bass, my guitar, and I started making tons of recordings. I have four track cassette tapes that should never see the light of day. [laughs] 

Pendarvis Harshaw: That’s beautiful that you said. It’s out of a need, like a spiritual need, and not out of wanting to be popular.

Tommy Guerrero: I think actually the reason why I make music, I think I’ve come to the conclusion it’s just it’s therapy. Like skateboarding was and now, especially since I can’t skate much that, you know, that really kind of kept me sane. Um, now it’s music, you know, it’s like it’s definitely therapy.

Pendarvis Harshaw: You created this production house, Two Good where you self-released your own, uh, projects and fulfill a need to stay creative, as you said before. Can you talk about how you’re staying afloat financially through your music?

Tommy Guerrero: Two Good started out of necessity because, uh, I was at a point in time when streaming really hit, and it was before vinyl had its comeback. I just thought like, wow, what am I going to do, musically? I’m always going to create. I’m always going to make music, but am I going to release music? Like what, what is the reason that I released music? And I wasn’t sure. 

Until I started getting, you know, a lot of people, uh, reaching out to me and saying, “Hey, I really dig what you do.”  It really, you know, it’s helped me out through this or that these times. And… and it’s like, oh, wow. So now I’m… I’m… it’s like, uh finding a reason to to do what I do because there’s so many people out there who dig it, but also are really positively affected by it and that’s super, that’s humbling. You know, you’re like, oh shit, this is a new weight kind of to carry in some sense, because you have these people, uh, who say, you know, all these amazing things about it. And I don’t know, it… it just it’s it’s, uh. It makes it, um. Makes it harder sometimes, you know?

Pendarvis Harshaw: ‘Cuz now you have pressure on you?

Tommy Guerrero: It’s like this sort of… this burden of love, which is, you know, that’s heavy. You know, to accept that, all those type of accolades and all that type of love.  it’s hard, you know?

And  so anyway, Two Good came about because I didn’t know what else to do and  I don’t know anyone in the music industry. And so I wasn’t going to go shop my records and stuff like that. I had, you know, my brief stint on Mo’ Wax, which was great early on, and they heard my music through a skate video that I had made. And that’s how that started with Mo’ Wax. And so when they became defunct, I was like, now what do I do? So then I had a record out on Quantum, and then Quantum went under and I was like, okay, because that was a local Bay area crew, and I was real good friends with some people that worked. And I was like, oh, these are good people, good crew. This will be a perfect fit. 

And then that went under because their district distribution went under and I was like, ‘fuck!’ So then I was like, okay, back to DIY, right? Just like everything I’ve always done. Record everything yourself. Make everything yourself. Now you’ve got to put it all out too. 

[Music]

Tommy Guerrero: So it’s actually my lawyer, he’s my partner in it and he’s just he’s, um, super helpful. And it’s just me and him, and it’s not, it’s really nothing. It’s just an imprint to the vehicle for my music.

I don’t really make any money off touring. Maybe there’s some merch to be happening, but the cost of touring is so expensive, it’s insane. Because it is so expensive to travel. You know, you have four people in a band. The cost is astronomical. And then you have your team, you know your TM, you have your van cost, you have a back line cost, you have gas, hotels, food.

The way I make money is licensing. That’s the best, that’s the best way.  For film, you know,  I have stuff on Netflix and, you know, all the streaming, streaming channels and, uh, that, that and through, you know, skate skate companies, um, Thrasher, etc., you know, licensing. That’s the only way you can really make any money in music, for me anyway.

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: You’re a father.

Tommy Guerrero: That is true.

Pendarvis Harshaw: What surprised you most about fatherhood?

 Tommy Guerrero: How difficult it is. Uh uh uh, you know, it’s… it’s extremely difficult to raise a human. It’s so hard because you question yourself all the time, of if you’re doing the right thing. It’s really difficult. But… but the rewards are, you know, you have this little human that’s so beautiful and you get to relive these experiences through their experiences, through their eyes, through their moments where, where they’re having these first moments. 

It helps to remind you that you’re alive and the things around you, and the beauty of the things around you and the, and the magic of the things around you, because we all forget it. We get old and get jaded and are like, “Ahh, I’ve seen it a million times,” you know? And so, you know, that’s just one of the beautiful parts of being a parent. 

He’s 19 now, so he’s his own… own dude. And he’s a really… he’s a really good, thoughtful person, so I’m grateful for that.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Early on did you have any difficulty introducing him to your passions?

Tommy Guerrero: I did. I never pushed it on him. I asked him if he wanted to learn to skate a couple different times. He was  like, “No, I don’t want to,” you know, when he was really young.

But I also, I’m not like, I don’t want him to be a mini me. I want him to have his own identity, his own, you know, his own personality, find his own path. Um, he… he gravitated towards, uh, scootering. And he has his, they were out skating at their riding at, uh, the new, uh, UN Plaza Park, and they were at SOMA and some other spot, too. So, you know, the same thing is, you know, just go hit the streets with your friends. It’s so, it’s so fun.

They do all the trick skaters do, in the sense, you know, a lot of the same stuff. You know, rails, and bomb hills, and jump off huge amounts of stairs and all the crazy tricks. It’s a.. it’s akin to like, a BMX, freestyle BMX.

 Pendarvis Harshaw: Get a set of wheels and ride.

Tommy Guerrero: Exactly. And catch air. That’s the thing. It’s like every young person, every kid, you know, I want to catch air that feeling… And so you chase it, you know, you have that feeling. It’s so fleeting. You chase that feeling for, I don’t know, I’ve been chasing it for 49 years or something. [laughs]

 [Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: Do you have any wisdom that you can pass on to the next generation of creatives who bear the culture of the Bay area?

Tommy Guerrero: One thing that I say is usually just do what you love and do it as much as you can because you have, you know? Most people haven’t found what it is, the reason why they exist. They hadn’t found that that, uh, that thing that gets them through the day of, you know, just every day, just life, you know, the hardships and ups and downs and trials and tribulations that we all go through. And, you know, a lot of people are in situations where they work a 9 to 5 and it may not be what they want to be doing. So I just say try to find that time, whatever it is you love, after work, after school or whatever it is, do it as much as you can.

I have come to the conclusion that life doesn’t have any meaning. Like you give life meaning. We don’t, why are we here? We didn’t ask to be here, none of us did.

 Pendarvis Harshaw: So you don’t find why you’re here, you define why you’re here.

Tommy Guerrero: That’s right.

Pendarvis Harshaw: That comes through constant work?

Tommy Guerrero: That’s right.

 Pendarvis Harshaw: I’m learning here. Yeah. That lesson was for me.

 Tommy Guerrero: Whether it’s right or wrong, left or right, I don’t know, but it’s just what I found.

 Pendarvis Harshaw: Thank you.

Tommy Guerrero: Of course. Thank you.

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: That’s Tommy Guerrero, folks. The skateboarder, the musician, the father and philosopher. Thank you! Really appreciate you sharing your insight with us. 

For all of you tuned in out there, I implore you to go and listen to some of Tommy’s work. He can be found on all streaming platforms, and he’s pretty active on social media as well. Check him out. His IG at tommyguerrero. 

On there you’ll find some fly archival shots of Tommy catching air back in the day, as well as information on his upcoming musical performances.     

Speaking of, he has a set of shows on Feb 24th and 25th as a part of the Noise Pop music festival in Frisco. More info can be found at NoisePop.com

This episode was hosted by me, Pendarvis Harshaw. It was produced by Marisol Medina-Cadena. Chris Hambrick is our editor. Christopher Beale is our engineer and Sheree Bishop is the Rightnowish intern. Additional support provided by Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña, Ugur Dursun and Holly Kernan.

Rightnowish is a KQED Production.

Until next time, peace.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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