At 44, Tommy Guerrero is now middle-aged. Hard to believe -- at least for fans who remember him as a teenage skateboard phenom who maneuvered professionally across the cement of San Francisco and other urban hot-spots. Even though Guerrero is still entrenched in skateboarding -- doing graphic design and more at a San Francisco skateboard distributor, and riding when he can -- it's music that moves him the most these days. His latest album, Lifeboats and Follies, is 13 tracks of sonic gold -- an instrumental mix of everything from jazz to Latin to funk but very much its own (non-derivative) sound. "Groove music" is what Guerrero calls it, but whatever the name, Lifeboats and Follies acts like a conveyer belt to a higher musical plane.
"I wasn't intentionally trying to write songs. I wanted it to be about the journey, not about the destination," Guerrero told me as he prepared for Saturday night's record release party at San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord. "People are writing songs that have been written a million times. I'm not saying I'm exempt from that. But what I try to do, hopefully, is evoke an emotional response -- not one that's based on the idea of, like, pop songs or pop structure. It's about the song letting it take you wherever it may."
Music has always been a creative outlet for Guerrero. As he told KQED-TV's Spark in 2004, "I've been playing music since I was about 12 . . . skateboarding since I was 9. You are what you are, and you are always that." What's different now: Guerrero's talent as a composer, guitarist, bassist and all-around music master have reached a very public crescendo, not just with Lifeboats and Follies but with his other recent projects: Original music for the EA video game skate; original music for designer Todd Oldham's cable TV show Handmade Modern; and licensed music to the TV shows Queer as Folk, Sex in the City and CSI: Miami. Like Moby, Guerrero creates songs that lend themselves easily to cinema and video. Guerrero makes mood music. Unlike Moby, Guerrero completely eschews lyrics.
"Instrument-only music is super-universal," Guerrero says. "You don't have the barrier of language when you're crossing different cultures. Everyone can dig what I do, without having to know how to speak (English). Also, there's always that aspect of having the (band) front-man or girl telling you something or how they're feeling, so the song is tethered to the vocals. Music, I think, should just be free. When I play music, most of what I'm recording is written right in that moment, very spur of the moment. Whatever inspiration hits me -- I just run with it. For me, it's more of an emotional thing."
Guerrero's music fans range from young teenagers to septuagenarian grandparents. When you first hear his songs, you're struck by the smooth integration of disparate sounds -- a pattern that extends to his previous albums, including 2003's Soul Food Tacqueria, which was called the year's second-best album by a reviewer from Germany's edition of Rolling Stone magazine. My favorite song from that album: "Interlude Train of Thought," which mixes otherworldly flute music with the sound of a train coming and going, and crickets. The one-minute song is an evocative dream-like snapshot that you want to play over and over again. Same with Lifeboats and Follies, as on the track "Nomadic Static," which incorporates dripping sounds as a complement to conga beats, bass strings and other instrumentation. Early reviews of Lifeboats and Follies have been kind. "His tunes all swing," said an East Bay Express reviewer, while KCRW (the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica) called the release "a sonic collage that incorporates a cinematic scope."
"I'd like to think," Guerrero says, "that some of my music is timeless."
Guerrero has music in his blood. His father was a singer and drummer who once sat in with jazz great George Benson at a San Francisco gig. Guerrero's grandfather on his father's side was a jazz guitarist and violinist, and his grandmother on his father's side was a vocalist. His brother is a noted guitar player. Raised by his mother in the inner Sunset district of San Francisco, Guerrero was given the freedom to ride on the streets at an early age. As a pro skateboarder, he toured Europe and Japan many times and was a standout racer, profiled in magazines and revered by fans. He co-founded the Real Skateboard Company in 1991. You can still see him skateboard to his work in Potrero Hill and at a skateboard park in Alameda. Tommy Guerrero is one of those creative, renaissance people who excels at many things. His life still revolves around music and skateboarding, though now there's his six-year-old son, Diego. Tommy Guerrero is a family man, passing on the lessons that he learned on the streets of San Francisco. He looks back at his teenage skateboard years with a sense of respect and wonder.
"You had total freedom," Guerrero says. "You didn't have all the responsibilities that go all around you. My responsibility (then) was to go skate. To progress. And travel the world and go do (skateboard demonstrations), and enter contests. It was a total dream that came true. Simpler times, of course. I always wish for simpler times. But I'm not sitting back and going, 'Oh, gosh; those were the good ol' days'."
Guerrero laughs as he says that. His sense of humor keeps him young, as does his skateboarding and his still-expanding music career.
Tommy Guerrero plays TONIGHT, Saturday, February 5, 9:30pm at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit cafedunord.com.