Mike Hill Interview
If your brain is stained with visions of Alien Workshop's creepy little Papier-mâché dioramas, then you're familiar with Mike Hill's work. After a rocky patch and an uncertain future for the Workshop, Mike has once again grabbed the reins of the brand and brought it back home to Ohio where he's currently operating out of an abandoned nuclear bunker. I hit him up to talk about nuclear contamination, art therapy, his recent collaboration with Supreme and the future of Alien Workshop. —Michael Sieben
So, Mike, you’re literally in a nuclear bunker facility right now, is that correct?
Yeah, we got in here a little over a year ago. It’s part of this whole complex that they started in the ‘60s then they shut it down in the ‘90s. It was kind of low-key up on the hit list of the strikes and there’s a big Air Force base here so they actually worked on the detonator to the Manhattan project bomb and there’s all these different underground bunkers here where they were testing nuclear materials. It’s kind of crazy. The building we’re in is actually backup control and command center in case the first command center got hit by Russian nukes, then this place was set up to house 40 people indefinitely. It had a diesel generator in it and fresh water. I don’t know that it was ever used just because of course the Cold War stopped. So there are bunkers in this complex called the Mound that was started by Monsanto. It’s got some scary stuff that happened here with the Atomic Energy Commission, I believe. Our UPS guy tells us stories about it. His dad retired from there and he thinks we’re nuts to be in here.
What type of scary stuff is he referring to?
Just like everything being hot, you know? He would tell us stories of how he never saw his dad take showers at home because he would always have to shower before he left his work because of the potential of being hot with nuclear contamination. They supposedly have underground spaces where they would have this hot material. When they cleaned it out it was this Superfund site and took many years to get cleaned up. Now it’s all regulated by the EPA and I have to go to meetings every year and let them know that I understand I’m not allowed to remove any soil from the place. But I guess there’s areas where they dump the soil so it’s not removed. It’s supposed to be all cleaned up. I don’t really sweat it. The people in this town around here were pretty scared during that time because there was some leakage throughout the building.
So you don’t worry about it but do any of your employees worry about contamination or getting sick?
There’s only one other guy that I deal with, Matt Williams, and he worked for us for a long time. So when I brought the Workshop back here from Tum Yeto, he came on and I think he might be kind of wigged out by hearing the stories. I started this whole thing when Alien went into Tum Yeto. I set up what was gonna be a design agency if you will: Sect. I used this space as a studio more or less and did the design work for Workshop and some other projects. But I kind of just wanted to do more art-based stuff and not be so involved with the business side of things since Rob Dyrdek had put it into Tum Yeto at the time. So it set up as that and I was really excited to have this space to use and do some screenprinting and have some shows here and just make it into a hub for local art people and whatnot. But then when Rob gave the brand back and he was sort of over it, now it’s set up to where we ship out of here and we run the whole operation form here, me and Matt. So I still want to do what I initially moved in here for. But obviously the day to day work of doing the Workshop kind of took precedent once Rob handed it back to me.
Inside the operation
Does Dyrdek currently have any involvement? What about Chris Carter?
Rob doesn’t have any involvement with the brand anymore. He gave 90 percent of Alien Workshop to me and he gave ten percent to Carter, and then he let Carter do Reflex and Joe Castrucci got Habitat. So that’s how Rob broke it up. That happened at the same time that I was approached by Supreme to do this collaboration. Rob had just called me and said, "I’m over this and you can just have it." So I was, like, okay, what am I gonna do? He had set up the whole organization with Tum Yeto because Habitat was already in there. At the time, I was ready to take a break and I couldn’t trust my thoughts of what to do and just the way it all went down with his people and getting these weirdos involved. I wanted to just take six months off and have a break, mentally. It was pretty hard on me and Carter, so when this came about with Supreme—it was last year around this time—I was in the middle of trying to sort through it. My gut told me to bring it back to Ohio and run the whole thing, but I always had Carter as a business guy who was doing that end of it, so I knew it would be a huge undertaking. I was tweaking trying to think of what to do. So Supreme asked me to do this collaboration and I thought, okay, this will be good because now I won’t just stew at a computer thinking about what to do or looking at numbers to see if I can afford to do it and pay the team, because we’d set up a new team and I was really psyched on them. I’d met them, gone out with them and they’re good dudes and they took a chance on coming on board with the Workshop after some weird times. So I felt really grateful they were on board and I felt obligated to them. So I just started working on these graphics for Supreme as a way to like—they take a lot of time and you have to sit and wait for one piece to dry, you know? Then paint it and you wait for that to dry. So at that point I was coming to the bunker by myself and I worked on the graphics for two months. I came to the bunker every day trying to think through, like, okay, what do you want to do? And you know, to time it with Tod Swank and Tum Yeto and all those guys, which I’m super grateful for them bringing the brand back. But at that point I felt that my role in it had changed from just doing the graphic side of it to now I had the brand in my hands and it just felt like that was the pull to bring it back to Ohio and hit the reset button in that way. That’s a lot to take on and I’m not really a business kind of guy so I was really just mentally in a real turbulent way. My mind was just crazy and I was just like, okay, I’m gonna work on these graphics because those things are really hands on. You’re not working on a computer.
Supreme collaboration graphics - click for more images
It’s like therapy.
Right. Exactly. I knew that it would be that way in the sense that it would take a long time and it would allow me to have a totally different focus. And I didn’t really know what was gonna happen. I knew that I wanted to bring the Workshop back to Ohio, but I also knew that it would be a huge undertaking and I didn’t really have anybody to do it with. So Matt, who came on board eventually, he was hitting me up every once in a while and I would just be, like, "Well, I’ve been talking to Tod about what to do," so then I just sort of said okay, I’m gonna go nuts. So I just started working on those graphics and it was during those two months of really disconnecting from stressing over it and the anxiety of what to do. So it kind of worked out timing wise and it ended up being really good because I had that space to think about something else and really focus on something that was enjoyable and kind of reconnecting with making those sculptures. So that's how it all happened in that regard. The timing of it lined up randomly with me trying to figure out, okay, do I take this all on back to Ohio or does it stay in Tum Yeto with me just doing the graphics? At that point it was just me back here. And some days I would pull up in the morning and the bunker would look like a prison.
Like a real job.
Well, yeah. It’s cold and this place is all concrete. So the Supreme thing was kind of a good mental focus. And by the time I was finished with that I decided that if this is what I’ve done the majority of my life, I’m gonna try to continue it and get the team involved in things and work with them. I really like Joey Guevara and Yaje Popson and Miguel Valle and the fact that they are into their own form of art with photography and painting, so I’m kind of stoked on that.
So speaking of the team, is there someone in California that helps with that stuff?
Brennan Conroy does the team managing. He does it for Habitat and Workshop. That was how it was set up when it went to Tum Yeto. I set up the agency to do the graphic stuff and then Brennan was doing the team and of course Tum Yeto was doing all the sales and fulfillment and everything.
So what is Chris Carter doing now since he's no longer part of the brand?
He's doing Reflex bearings, which was sort of side project under our DNA umbrella. Rob gave that back to him and I think he's doing the skate tool; he has something set up with I think Independent to do that tool as a license. When everything fell apart with the other people involved, he kind of just stepped down when it went to Tum Yeto. You know, I think he had some health problems but he's doing good now. I think it was just the stress of running something for at that point I think it was almost 20 years. It was 24 years or something.
How do you stay motivated after all these years to run a skate brand? What inspires you to keep doing it?
What motivates me is still wanting to do things that I've always wanted to do with Alien Workshop. To me it was always like there were multiple layers of the brand. So you'd have the team guys, which were like the main skateboarding part of it and they handled that and they were almost like the spokesman for the brand in their own way. I always liked that the Workshop was kind of like—everything was just the Workshop. When I do work for the Workshop, I don't think of it as my work. I think of it as the Workshop's work. So I kinda like the idea of an entity creating things versus a person. That's kind of how I always thought about it. I was 24 when I started with the Workshop and kind of had a lot of maybe utopian ideas about it. I want the bunker be sort like a hub for people. Like the team guys come here and they hang out and stuff and then other skaters locally or whatever. I want to set up screenprinting classes here. But I kind of want to have it set up, for a lack of a better word, like a school or something. For skateboarders to have this place where it's still skateboarding based but you have this design and film and video and art and screenprinting so you have like this little entity that can be producing stuff and it would kind of be under the Alien Workshop umbrella. So that's what motivates me to continue on and keep doing it. Skateboarding turned me on to graphic design and music in a way that I wouldn't have been turned on by if it wasn't for skateboarding. It affected me and it shaped my life so I think that I should take that opportunity to have it work like that for other young skaters.
Is there any truth to the Alien logo being created by you, Carter and Blender at Denny's?
It was based off the Denny’s logo and the Marathon gas station logos. I made it in the basement of a house I was living in at the time. It was cut with amberlith film and then rigged up with a coat hanger in a curve from a desk lamp with a flashlight shining through the amberlith, so it warped the word ALIEN and then I traced the reflection it made on the desk. Then cut that tracing out of amberlith and made the badge shape around it and added the Workshop lettering from Presstype rub on letters. I was really into amberlith then because it made a crisp line.
Logo design, pre Creative Suite
In my opinion Alien's always been very progressive in terms of the graphics. Were you bummed when you lost some control and Rob Dyrdek put a photo of his bulldog on the bottom of an Alien deck?
Well, I think at that time things were pretty sideways and internally we were pretty burnt out. Meaning me and Carter and the team was huge and to be honest with you, it sort of felt like you just sort of lose sight of something, you know? Because there's all these variables going where you know you're trying to build your real team but then this person sells way more than a Dill board. So that's sort of really painful but it's kind of the nature of it. Sometimes I'll come across those files on my hard drive and it seems like a different life. It's just one of those things where I'm not proud of it but I think when you're inside this glass bubble of trying to make it work and have all your employees not get laid off—not that it should have took precedent but it was just a lot of stress, you know?
When Dill and Ave quit Workshop, did you guys have any idea that was gonna happen? Did they talk to you guys beforehand?
From what I understand there was a meeting with Rob out there because of course they grew up together and whatnot and I think that they were probably thinking about doing something. I think that when Rob came in he’d been kind of out of the loop with the brand for a while so his perspective on things was coming from a different place than the team riders or even our perspective. So they met with Rob and came away thinking, like, this isn’t going right. I don’t have any ill feelings towards them. I’m always stoked to see people create something of their own. I mean, it sucked for sure because you kind of love those dudes but I can’t bemoan somebody doing something on their own.
You’ve got to be proud to look at what they’ve done with their brands.
Oh yeah. I mean, I’m super-duper stoked for them. I talked to Jason when he was here and it was great to see him and just the fact that in this day and age it’s so much harder than back when we started to actually do something and have an original impact on things, you know? Because there’s just so much more of everything now, whereas back then there was just a handful of brands.
Hill & Dill
Brennan Conroy wanted me to ask: who is the best Workshop rider in the history of the brand?
I probably had the most connection to Duane Pitre. I met him when I worked for G&S and them filming for the Footage video. He was the first pure street skater in terms of style, having not grown up on tranny. He was amazing to film and hang out with. It’s impossible to say who is the best as the Workshop has had so many great team riders over the years, but a short list would have to include Grant, Dill, Heath and Dylan.
Not raised on tranny but totally comfortable on it. Duane Pitre, ollie one foot, Dayton, OH 1990 Photo: Hill
When I look at the landscape of contemporary skate graphic design I see a ton of brands that looks similar to old Alien graphics. Have you noticed that?
If the Workshop does influence then that’s great. I don’t really go looking. I’m just focused on what we do at the Workshop now with the team riders and us here in the bunker. I can’t deal with distractions so in order for me to do this, especially with just me and Matt doing, it I don’t really go looking for distractions and I don’t have any problem with anybody doing anything. I just think that people can live and let live because in the end if the Workshop or some other brand influenced somebody, that’s cool. I mean, of course when I was growing up brands influenced me, so it’s just the nature of everything.
What are you guys working on right now? What’s the next thing that the Workshop’s excited about?
Well, of course we have Joey and Yaje's pro models that just came out. I know that people were kind of wanting some pro riders, but it just had to take its natural path for that to occur. I think they’re both working on more parts and then Brandon Nguyen and Max Garson were in Tokyo late last year so they’re working on video parts. I want to try to do some events here at the bunker. I’ve talked to Yaje, Joey and Miguel about having a team art show. We could have it open to the public and have an open house to the bunker and try to open things up and have those guys display their work and have something locally for the Ohio and Cincinnati area. I want to try to utilize this space so that the team guys have a hub to do things out of too. Then, you know, just keep pushing forward, hopefully getting it to where I can help supplement these guys to travel and do what they do. That’s my main thing: to try to have it where it’s stable enough so that I can have these guys travel and film and make their projects. Miguel’s an amazing cinematographer and I love the fact that we have these kind of people on board right now.
Last question: do you still believe in aliens?
I think I probably do. I think I want to, you know? I like the unknown and I like mystery, so we’ll just leave it at that.
Little room, big impact. The Alien art department in the early '90s
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