Part 1: The Powerhouse And Turning Pro For Xsjado
Never has the ascent from relatively unknown skater to internationally recognised professional been so rapid. Dustin Werbeski was plucked from obscurity, otherwise known as the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, by Powerslide to work as the in-house photographer for The Powerhouse in Barcelona in 2010 and, just three years later, he turned professional for Xsjado.
Dustin Werbeski is a firecracker; you just light the fuse and watch him go. During the course of our two-hour conversation that kept cutting out due to the fact that a storm was taking place right outside his bedroom window in Regina, Canada, there was surprisingly little questioning. The mere mention of certain topics resulted in the most detailed revelations of pivotal moments in his blading career and his answers were punctuated with disarming honesty. Werbeski openly admits that he has burned a few bridges in the industry and created some enemies along the way, but as least he is forthright enough to call it like he sees it and he’s not afraid to accept the consequences. How many people can you genuinely say that about in professional blading?
In the first installment of our three-part series, Werbeski explains how he ended up being employed by Powerslide and flown to Barcelona to establish The Powerhouse with Richie Eisler, turning pro for Xsjado thanks to an act of generosity from former professional and team manager JC Rowe and the injuries that plagued him around that period. In addition to being incredibly insightful, Werbeski could be one of the funniest subjects that has featured in a Wheel Scene interview because he readily acknowledges the ridiculousness of the situations he has found himself in over the years. Plus, every time he says “duties” with a Canadian accent is comedy gold because it sounds like “doodies”. Yes, we are that immature. He also kindly provided a selection of unpublished photos from his time in Barcelona for you to enjoy.
Wheel Scene: I know that you are back home in Regina at the moment. Have you moved back permanently or are you just visiting?
Dustin Werbeski: Just a quick visit. I’m here for two months. I’ve only got another month then I head back to Barcelona.
Do you have a job in Barcelona?
No, man. I’m attempting to live off the blade game.
Really? I thought you might be teaching or something. How is that going?
It’s a struggle, but it works. Since the whole lack of pro situation, I’ve been living off productions, more or less. Sending off invoices for photos and edits and all that shit, you know? I’m doing some work for Undercover, so social media, assisting, all that crap. I’ve got a fiancee, so I should be applying for a visa so that I can get a real job out there. I just came home after another year living there illegally, obviously. I was on a three-month travel visa then just stayed.
(Laughs) That sounds pretty risky.
I got out smooth as could be. The guy who was doing passport control didn’t even ask me a single question. He couldn’t get my passport to read in the computer, so he just stamped me out. He didn’t realise I was there so long, so free and clean to go back. I have my ticket, so it’s all good!
That is a good scam! How long have you lived in Barcelona?
2010 was the first time I went and then it’s been… 75% of every year has been spent there, more or less, so basically five years.
Wow. That’s quite a long time.
It started with the whole Powerhouse as an in-house photographer, building their blog and maintaining all that. As the Powerhouse was going down and they realised that, as I was out shooting everybody that I was sort of out skating everybody too, so they were like, “You’ve built yourself up. You’ve built a name. You’re doing everything the pros are doing, so we might as well make you pro.” I was like, “That works for me.” So I didn’t have the duties of camerawork anymore, which was great, and then… As Xsjado and the industry got worse and worse, that got taken away and I am back to the whole behind-the-scenes kind of guy, which is cool. I took every opportunity I could with blading and it seems like the opportunities have gotten less and less, so I’ve been focusing on it too much and not focusing on my photography, which I studied and was really focused on before the Powerhouse started. I got to live there because of my photography. I always said, when I turn 30, I will be done with the whole blade game, be settled and doing professional work. That’s next year, so it seems like I’m transitioning out of the whole professional athlete back into the whole professional photographer thing. I have no complaints.
How did you end up getting hired to work at the Powerhouse? Did you and Richie Eisler go to Barcelona at the same time?
The exact same time. Richie was living in Australia and got booted out for visa fraud, and I had finished photography school and moved to the west coast of Canada to built a portfolio. We come from the same city, so we ended up re-meeting and he was like, “I gotta figure out what I’m doing now.” I was like, “Yeah, me too.” He had heard from Oli Benet that they were thinking about setting up this studio, so we spent two days brainstorming everything from electricity bills to the equipment needed to run a photography/filmmaking studio and literally broke down everything to the people we wanted to come. We hit them (Powerslide) with a whole year’s plan. Richie presented it, they loved it and I noticed, “Oh, shit. If I don’t step up, I’m not going to be sent to Barcelona. I need to make it known that I helped establish this.” The next day, I contacted Mathias Knoll, the head of Powerslide, and was like, “I assisted Richie with the whole structure of this. Here’s my portfolio.” I knew Richie was going to be distracted by skating, so I knew they needed somebody to help with it. They were like, “This is exactly what we need. What do you need?” I was like, “This much equipment, a flight over, a visa”, and they just hit me with everything. It was great. It was the most money I had every received from blading.
I did always wonder about the skaters that were featured in the Powerhouse edits because some were big names – Richie Eisler and Dominic Sagona – but there were some amazing lesser-known skaters, like Fredrik Andersson and Allan Beaulieu. How did you end up deciding who to feature?
That was us having a list of anyone who had any connection with The Conference, from flow skaters to any working relationship with the company in the past. We allowed whoever could get there to get involved. Blading has always been that way, you have to manage yourself, so we were like, “If you guys can get down here, come be a part of something awesome.” We asked Nick Lomax, but he never showed up. He only came over after the Powerhouse closed and now he’s living there all-year-round. Some people came on their own dollar, some people got flown in, it just depended how good they were at the business side of blading. Fredrik has worked with Richie on some Swedish comps before and he was working well with Powerslide because he had a skate shop run out of his skatepark. He wanted in and they got him over there right away.
It did seem like, towards the end of the Powerhouse, there was more partying going on than blading and filming.
(Laughs) Yeah, we kind of figured out what it took to do the job, just get by, and then it turned into a free-for-all in the end. We did keep it under control because, at the very end, I was the last one to leave the house. I cleaned it up to get back our deposit and it was fucked by the end. (Laughs) I got it back to tip-top shape, then Oli Benet came and, the day we were getting our deposit back, he smashed the living room table and blew it for all of us. We could have done more with the Powerhouse, but… After a year of being a tour guide and taking everyone to the same spots, it got repetitive to the point where we just did it to do it. It wasn’t so adventurous any more, but it was still a pleasure.
How did Oli Benet break the table? He doesn’t strike me as a wild, reckless guy.
It was the weirdest fluke. I had put the apartment into mint condition, minus the door Worapoj had punched a hole through because Adrien Anne tried to make a move on his girlfriend and he was upset about it. (Laughs) There was a big glass table that we had put a map of Barcelona underneath and marked spots so everyone who visited knew where to go. This table was the centre-piece of everything and it has a crack in the corner of it from day one, and we put a crack in the other corner somehow over the course of the year. Oli insisted we spin the table around so it didn’t look so bad, and it made no sense because the map would then be pointing to the wall, so I was like, “Dude, just leave it alone.” He was like, “Let’s just turn it around before the guy gets here.” I grab one end of the glass table, he grabs the other and, as we lift it up, the buzzer goes off and the landlord is there. There was a mirror on the wall that wasn’t attached properly, it slides down, smashes the marble base, and glass, mirror and marble goes all over the living room. The guy comes in, sees this and he goes, “That’s the most expensive thing in the house. You’re not getting your deposit back.”
That is some incredibly bad luck.
But Oli Benet did good. He put every bill under his name ‘cause he was the only Spanish guy, so without him it wouldn’t have happened. But in the end, he kind of ruined it for everybody. (Laughs)
How did you get rid of all the graffiti on the doors?! I remember there being a lot of Spanish words in black marker.
Those were normal whiteboard markers that, in a year of being on the wall, had turned into permanent marker and it was days of scrubbing. It was a full fucking process. Richie insisted on teaching everybody Spanish and he took a month-long course, and wrote all of his lessons on the walls. Once that started, everybody was like, “Free-for-all.” We had a height meter of every person who came in and people would leave farewell notes, people would doodle when they were drunk… Yeah, it got out of control!
When did Xsjado decide to make you pro?
It would have been 2013 because it was… The Xsjado team arrived in 2012, and I had turned 25, and Jeff Stockwell talked it up, like, “This is going to be a good year for you. That was the year everything happened for me.” I had been with them, filming for the Xsjado video, but I was still the guy behind the scenes. I wasn’t trying to make a name for myself, but everybody was impressed that I was being a part of the session. Then they left, Brandon Negrete had the footage on hand, was working on the project, and then he handed it over to Paul John because of financial issues, inconsistencies with everybody on the team, everybody had a different picture and he just didn’t want to deal with it. At that time, Jeff had seen that I was doing something with photography more than I was doing with blading and he realised that he should be doing the same. He slowly stepped down and just wanted to work on his photography. JC Rowe was the team manager and he was my biggest backer. Without him, I wouldn’t have gone Xsjado pro because, in the end, he actually gave up his wage for me. He stopped taking the team management and pro wage to allow there to be more budget so I could go pro, which was fucking awesome. I owe a lot to him for that.
That sounds like a pretty selfless act.
Yeah. He helped design my skate. We worked really closely over emails and I just doodled what I wanted. A year after the Powerhouse, I started another studio to try and continue the whole thing freelance: fly people in, charge invoices and continue the Powerhouse, but as a new studio not run by Powerslide. That was the year that I sent off my sketch of a big wheel powerblade Xsjado. I was basically the only person who would ever allow that because everybody on Xsjado didn’t want the big wheels. I was loving it. I saw the best of both worlds. Mathias Knoll was like, “We’re going to make you a big wheel skate.” JC’s like, “We’re going to make you a Xsjado.” They agreed and there was no stopping it after that.
What happened to the pro Kizer frame that you were meant to get? I saw a photo of some samples, but…
Yeah, the Fluid 4. That was created last year, when I was thinking out of the whole wood grain and trying to think of the future, and everything was silver in my mind. I created it and sent it straight off to China. They sent me back some samples and they were really low budget, you could rub the silver off with your fingers, so I got another one produced. It was perfect. It was made of silver plastic. I was like, “If you want something that’s going to sell, make it shiny because that’s the first thing that’s going to stand out when you walk into a skate shop.” The human eye is attracted to gold and silver; it’s just the way it is. They agreed on it, they loved it and they approved the samples. Then they backed out, saying that sales are too slow and Kizer wasn’t going to do any pro frames. I sat on the samples for six months and then, when I was packing up my house to come here, I realised that nothing was happening with it so I had to leak the samples to the world.
(Laughs) That’s one way to do it.
I just hope that somebody produces it. I want to skate silver frames and if my boss isn’t going to make it, fuck, let somebody else do it. (Laughs)
That sounds fair enough. When you were added to the Xsjado professional team, were you given any conditions? Did you have a contract?
Yeah. I was given a contract saying that I had to produce a pro announcement edit and requested, more or less, monthly edits, but that wasn’t really enforced and… There were always paid incentives for each production, but once you were pro there weren’t any more incentives, but they still requested that you thought of it that way. You were meant to act like you were going to be paid per edit, but your wage was now there so you weren’t being paid as an incentive. Basically, they still wanted as many edits. You were meant to get a certain amount of photos, all the stuff that the flow guys do and the stuff that, once people do go pro, end up slacking on because there’s no demand to actually do it. Going pro is kind of a curse. (Laughs) It does allow people to slack off a lot more.
Do you think that’s what happened with you?
In my case, it may have appeared that way, but my pro announcement was created in Kansas City by Brandon Negrete, which was the biggest honour ever, being his last video he ever made. I worked with him in Barcelona, we kept in touch really well and I made my way back to North America. I got an RV and I drove down to Kansas City and I was supposed to go to California for the Valo premiere. I knew I wasn’t going to make it because the gas on my RV was insane – eight miles to the gallon. I wrote him, being like, “I made it to Kansas City. All the Forever Now, Road To Nowhere guys, they’re around. The KCMO scene is here, the Haitian guys are here. You should really come for a week and we can handle it here because I’m not gonna be able to get to you.” Brandon flew in to Kansas City and it kind of pissed off everybody because all those guys had worked with him before and were his “best friends”, but nobody knew he was coming. One day, sitting around the table, I was like, “Brandon’s going to be here tomorrow.” They were like, “He’s talking to YOU?!” I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been talking to him every week for the last three years.” I broke my rib day one in Kansas City, so I got hopped on painkillers that was paid for by the Canadian free healthcare system.
God bless Canada!
I managed to make the edit in one week. I had to get a couple of clips from Sean Kelso, which made it so that I wasn’t going to be in KCMO, which wasn’t a problem because I really wanted to have everything I did in Kansas City handled by Negrete because that was my biggest project there. It ended up being a proper Xsjado pro announcement, which was great. Leaving Kansas, up through Chicago, Minneapolis and blew out my knee. I needed a month of rehab. I had torn out the meniscus in my dominant knee, my left knee, so everything was fucked. I was in rehab all of winter in Regina, skating a barn to try and get my skills back, and that created a pretty big lag in content. That isn’t what Powerslide wanted to see as you go pro, but there was nothing I could do about it. They understood, but they were still pissed on the business side that I wasn’t able to promote my skate like I should. Then I went to Vancouver and made my pro skate edit from there, all filmed on my iPhone, which was fucking sick. Nobody probably knows that. (Laughs)
I don’t think I’ve seen that one.
If you can’t recall it, it was another Tom Waits track and a bunch of shots of my skates in waterfalls, grinding moss-covered ledges with no wax and just nature-orientated skating. Then there was a bunch of Vancouver stuff – big wheels, small wheels – just a mix. It was maybe not very effective, but I was happy with it.
Let me get this straight. You filmed your whole pro announcement edit in one week with a broken rib and then came straight off an injury to film your pro skate edit?
Yeah, exactly, six months later.
It seemed like you got hurt a few times after you turned pro. Didn’t you break your wrist last year as well?
Yeah, I shattered both my wrists before going pro, while I was designing the skate, back in my studio in Barcelona. I got the pro announcement, tore my knee apart, went to Vancouver, made the pro skate edit, then moved to Barcelona and filmed two edits. Then, to make my first UC pro wheel with the moon on it, the Melies-inspired one, I broke my ring finger. I caught it on a pole and snapped it back, and shattered it. Yeah, I’ve dealt with a bunch of injuries in the last couple of years.
Yet, even with all of those injuries, you seem to have produced more online edits than a lot of professionals.
Yeah, that’s because I was coming from that… I saw what happens – the dependency on your wage and the no more need for producing edits. I knew that that was the curse of Kelso going pro for Xsjado. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think it was two years, maybe only one… But when the pressure got put on him that he wasn’t creating any promo, he whacked out that red rail edit, tapping around, all those kiss-the-rail kind of tricks, and basically pissed the boss off. The boss is like, “I don’t want to see you spend half an hour on one spot, just tapping it, that’s not promo.” I have always been in good communication with the boss, so I knew I would keep him happy by continually making stuff. It makes me happy to make those things; it’s the most pleasure I get out of skating. I have always looked at it as an art form and each edit is a piece of art. There’s no other way for me to express myself. I don’t go to competitions and, if I do, I use them as an opportunity to see my friends and document everyone else. The edits are all I have. When I turn 60, I have something to look back on. I’d rather look at the edits than a skate on the wall.
To find out what Dustin Werbeski has to say about his time in Kansas City, his conflict with Sean Kelso and why things ended with Xsjado, check back for Part 2.
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