CKY was skateboarding’s original polymorphous brand. That’s just a fancy way of saying that CKY was a band, a video series, and a group of friends who did sketchy stunts in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and it ended up defining an entire generation of skateboarders.
For most, Bam Margera may have been the face of the CKY movement. But his older brother, Jess, the band’s drummer, was heavily involved in all the wild shit coming out of West Chester, PA.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the first CKY video and CKY’s first two albums, giving us the perfect excuse to interview Jess Margera about all the weird stuff he’s gotten into over the past 20 years.
If you started skating in the early-2000s, the “96 Quite Bitter Beings” opening riff may not leave your head until you die. After reading this interview (with the track embeded for 96 minutes), it will be cemented well past death.
I know you used to skate, but did you ever get sponsored like Bam?
Fairman’s [skate shop] had a team here, and I was on. The one trick I had over a couple of the better dudes around here was an ollie impossible. This was like early ‘90s, and Bam and [Brandon] Novak were the prodigies. They were 12 years old and showing up everybody at Tampa. There was another contest in Brick, New Jersey, and Bam and Novak were the two 12-year-olds busting crazy shit on the mini ramp. I didn’t even enter because I was bummed [Laughs]. I’d come in last place.
When did music start to take over for you?
Around ’94 I was like, “I gotta do something else. I gotta play rock music.” I got my drivers license and met some really good musicians around here [West Chester, PA]. Then music kinda took over. I still skated, but I wasn’t trying to be good [laughs].
For the CKY thing, all we did was go skate, film dumb shit, and then record music all night. After years of this we were like, “Alright what are we gonna do with all this footage? And all this music?” It’s kinda funny, the first thing CKY released was two albums. That’s how much stuff was floating around.
Can you still kickflip?
I just did recently [laughs]. I did a double flip. We were doing one of those meet and greets, and somebody brought their Element board that we just put out. Somebody dared me to try one. Took me three tries. Then I got it [laughs]. I was pretty proud of myself.
My son’s getting into skating now. Anytime he’s out in the driveway I’ll try and ollie impossible. The closest I ever got was landing then the board shot out, and I ate shit [laughs]. I’m like, “London, you don’t understand, dude. If I break my arm I can’t tour, and we can’t pay the bills around here, man, c’mon.”
Did you hang out at Love Park a lot as a kid?
Always. It’s crazy to think I was on a subway alone going to Love Park to go skate [at that age]. My parents just let me and Bam go on a subway that goes through West Philadelphia to Love Park, which is like hell. I have a 13 year-old daughter, I would never let my kid do that now. If they even made it without getting killed or something—I’d be arrested when she got home. I’d be referred to the Bad Parent Association, or whatever it is.
It was chaos every day. I remember cops tackling dudes with a gun. They’d shoot in the air, we’d all have to run. Multiple guns pointed at me. It was nuts, man. Huge fights. Some New York dudes would come down and start some shit with Philly guys, and Ricky Oyola would always end it. That dude is insane. Ricky Oyola was always the one swinging his board hitting dudes in the head. I’m 14, sitting there like, “Alright, I’m gonna go now.”
I don’t know how we got in with those guys, because it was pretty rough, man. If you were new or just sitting there like an idiot, they’d fuck with you. And we were just young dumbass kids. I guess because we really hit it off with Stevie [Williams], and we invited him over to our house and my mom cooked dinner, we got in with those guys.
Did you ever smoke crack at Love?
Oh, no [laughs]. There was plenty of it around, though, if I wanted to. A lot of drug deals gone bad with guns waving around. And you don’t know if you were going to get shot. That’s just skating back then.
Did you and Bam ever compete with each other for fame or success?
Not really, because it was two different worlds. Actually, I kind of felt bad for him after he became massive and couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. I would never be able to handle it like he did. I need to be able to go out to Wawa to get a cup of coffee without getting swarmed or whatever. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t go out and about and just do normal everyday things. He would get cornered, and people would swarm. People don’t really realize how crazy that shit is.
There is the argument like, “Yeah, you signed up for it.” But when you can’t even go do whatever you want to do without having some kind of chaperone or security, it’s pretty fucked up. I definitely enjoyed the perks when I went out with him, getting all this special treatment [laughs]. But I can understand when you just want to go out to dinner with your girlfriend, or whatever, and you can’t. I’m not that type of person. I like my privacy.
Would CKY have reached the level of success it did without Bam?
I don’t think so. Definitely not. We did not have any music industry record label support at all. We got recognition through skateboarding. We’re forever in debt to all of that.
Especially in Europe. We didn’t have any album sales over there. I finally bitched and complained enough that we wanted to go play England, and they were like, “It’s a waste of time. Nobody knows who you are over there.” But they booked this 600-700 capacity place in London, and it sold out in like 10 minutes. Then they had to move us to a big arena, then that sold out.
And it’s just because of MTV, and oddly enough, probably Napster at the time. Illegal downloading really sucks for musicians and bands, but in situations like that it’s not so bad. I don’t think we’d get to go play Sweden or Norway without it. We never had albums there. We played Japan, and we never had albums in Japan I don’t think.
What’s the craziest shit you’ve seen at a CKY show?
I think still to this day, the first time we ever played the Trocadero in Philly, Bam jumped off a balcony that was like a 25ft-drop to the crowd. I know Adam Wallacavage took a picture of it. I think somebody was filming.
I’m playing drums, and I was like, “They’re not going to catch him. That’s way too high, he’ll just drop to the ground.” They caught him. It was unbelievable. And then Ryan Dunn tried the same shit, but from the back where the crowd wasn’t as packed in. He hit the floor hard [Laughs].
Have you ever focused your drum kit before?
Focused it? [laughs] Nah but I’ve lit it on fire before.
Did you sign a lot of skate product back then on tours?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Our album came out on Landspeed Wheels, which was part of Tum Yeto. We always toured doing shows at skateparks and all that shit. Then we got on Volcom [Entertainment], so we were even more in the skate scene. Then we got stuff on Element. It’s always been a huge thing. And then the Tony Hawk game, obviously, was huge.
It’s funny, because the music industry didn’t have anything to do with us getting popular. It was mostly through Thrasher, Big Brother, and Transworld. They covered us all the time. And then all of our albums were in skate shops, not really record shops so much. Our album ended up selling 50,000 copies before we had even been in a record store. Then finally, all the labels took notice of that and we signed with Island Def Jam.
“The music industry didn’t have anything to do with us getting popular. It was mostly through Thrasher, Big Brother, and Transworld”
How much did you get paid to have your music in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3?
Activision just gave us a flat fee. I don’t think we got much, but it’s not about what you get paid for that. It’s that the album’s going to sell 100,000 more copies because of THPS. You reach so many people playing that game for hours and hours at a time that I would’ve taken $1 to be on there. I mean, you gotta look at the promotion of it, that’s why you do it.
Besides increasing record sales, how else did being part of THPS help you guys?
We knew it was reaching people, but we were still a very small cult following. Bam’s like this maniac with travel atlases. Still to this day, he could name the capitals of any country, he’s just that guy. He used to stare at maps for hours when he was a kid. So one of his travel books had Iceland, and ever since we were 9 and 10, we always wanted to go there. Then we found out it was a four-hour flight from JFK, so even more of a reason to go. So finally, when we got a little bit of money from selling the albums with the movie, we went.
That was the true shock of how far this thing went. When we were in the town square in Reykjavik, there was a bunch of kids skating and they all knew us. We were like, “Woah! We’re on an island in the North Atlantic in the middle of nowhere, and these kids know who we are.”
CKY’s music was also in skate videos, but you probably didn’t get royalties from skate videos, right?
Back then it was just a handshake thing. Maybe they’d throw you a couple hundred bucks. In the case of the CKY video, Bam was thinking of using other music and we were like, “Dude, we have over three albums of music here. Have at it.” Then he ended up just using it all, so he didn’t have to end up with all that licensing shit. But for CKY3 he had a Queens of the Stone Age song, a band that you definitely have to do it proper with licensing.
By the time we were getting in video games and stuff, we had a whole team of lawyers. But in the early days, we didn’t do anything like that, and we totally got ripped off. That’s what happens when you’re young.
In ‘99 we ended up on the Warped Tour, and stopped when we were in San Diego. Tum Yeto is around there, so we barged the office and were like, “We went to Iceland and everyone knows us there, so obviously you’re selling to Europe, and we didn’t get any money for any Europe stuff.” Then we went in the warehouse and there were all of our albums and all of our VHS tapes, merch, and stuff like that. We just took it. We’re like, “Well, we need stuff to sell on Warped Tour so we’re taking all of this.” They were all like, “Yeah ok. That’s fine.” They knew that if we started digging into their accounting it would be bad news.
Have you seen any of the CKY memes?
We have a shirt of the one of Bernadette Nere [Laughs]. We actually made that meme when we were bored.
Oh! You guys made the Bernadette Nere meme?
Yeah, we made it on the tour bus because we had a super long drive. We were just bored and were like, “I wonder if there’s anyone [named] Dan Nanantna?”—something like that, you know? Then it was Bernadette Nere. Sure enough, there she was. She’s some old lady from South America. Our bass player, Matt [Deis], went on Facebook and found her, then made the meme. I’m still getting people asking if I’ve seen it. It’s like, “Yeah, we made it two years ago.”
How involved was Bam with the band?
He directed most of our videos, and he even sang on a couple songs. We did this really fucked up Christmas song and he sang on that, and a couple other songs. “Shippensburg” was a song we didn’t have any room for on Volume 1, so he sang on it, then it ended up on Volume 2. Bam would be like, “There’s this Def Leppard skit… you have to cover ‘Foolin’ by Def Leppard.” From random cover tunes and instrumental stuff, we had a lot of stuff laying around and he’d be like, “I need music for this skate scene.” Then we’d write something for him.
Luckily this town is just boring enough that there wasn’t much to do. Just get in a room and record music. Go film in the woods. Bam was always really good at editing, so he would take about two hours of random footage, then turn it into a two-minute funny skit. That was the biggest job of it all. Bam just sifting through all these tapes trying to edit it together.
Did the band’s success ever take a toll on you?
Every VH1 Behind the Music happened to us [laughs]. It happens to every band probably. We fell into all the rock clichés for a while. That’s kind of why we broke up. Because when you go on these tours you get pampered, and you have a crew of people and they work for you. It’s very easy to get out of control. But now we’re all getting older, and we’re more chilled out.
Were there any specific breaking points for you or the band?
One particular night that really stands out was, we were in London and we just got this pretty big record deal with Mercury Records. They were really trying to pamper us and make us glad we signed with them. So they got us this really nice hotel in London, like the top floor suite, all this shit.
We went out into Camden Town, drank a little too much, took a bunch of mushrooms. Then we went back to our hotel completely blasted out of our minds, and there were nine people hanging out in our room, so we just ordered nine of everything on the room service menu. And they brought it—nine pizzas, nine burgers, nine salads, nine everything. Then we had this massive food fight, of course, and they had to like recarpet, repaint, you know [laughs]. So we got this massive bill from the hotel that Mercury Records had to pay. Back then it was that big of a deal. People bought albums, so a $28,000 hotel bill is just like, “Yeah we were partying, whatever.” That one definitely sticks out.
Hanging out with Axl Rose was awesome too. That was crazy.
How did you end up hanging with Axl Rose?
We did that Guns N’ Roses tour, the first Chinese Democracy Tour, when Buckethead was playing guitar. We had to sign this huge contract before we went out, saying all this crazy shit, like, “You can’t make eye contact with Axl while you’re going to stage.” So I was like, “I’m staying away from that dude. I’m not even going to risk it.”
And then we were playing in Toronto and you had to take an elevator from where their dressing rooms are up to the stage. So I get on, it’s just me, my drum tech, and Axl. It was awkward silence, then I was like, I gotta fucking say something. So I said, “Hey man, thanks for having us out on the tour. It has been awesome so far. I really appreciate it.” [Axl] was just like, “You wanna go to the strip club later?” I was like, “Fuck yeah, dude! Let’s go.” So it’s me, my drum tech, and Axl going to all these strip clubs in Toronto. You have to do all this shit, like you go through the kitchen to not get mobbed, then you get this private room. I was like, “What the fuck is happening right now? I don’t even think he had to pay. I think the strip clubs probably paid him to go [laughs].
So Axl isn’t a dick like some people say he is?
On that tour, he was the nicest dude ever. You hear all the rumors and shit. I’m sure some are true. Cuz I did see him almost make a lighting guy cry [laughs]. But if anyone ever asks, he was a fucking sweetheart to me, so I’ll never say anything bad about him ever.
How many records you think you’ve sold over the years of the first albums?
We were ignored by the music industry in the beginning, but for certain Volume 1 is gold and the “96” single is platinum. I just did some guerrilla math real quick, it definitely is. “96 Quite Bitter Beings” alone has 25 million Spotify streams, then 30 million on YouTube. I know the actual CD sold 300,000 copies. Gold is 500,000. So the album might be platinum, and the single might be double platinum. Not to mention all of the albums that got sold through Volcom, skate shops, and Tum Yeto. I’m not even counting that.
But I don’t know how to get that little thing on my wall, which I want. I’m 40 now and I kind of want something cool in my office [laughs]. Sometimes I’ll go over to my buddies’ houses and they’ll have their little gold plaques and I’m like, “Oh, that’s cool. I want that.” [Laughs] I have that, but I just don’t have it.
Do you ever feel like you were a one-hit wonder?
I think to casual fans, they know “96,” maybe “Flesh Into Gear,” but we definitely have die-hard people who know all of our stuff. I like when we play a festival and you know half the crowd either doesn’t know you, or knows one or two of your songs. Then for the 30 minutes you have to play you have to win them over. That’s my favorite part of doing this job. I like seeing a dude in the front confused, and he doesn’t understand what’s happening. Then by the end of the set, he’s super into it. That’s why I still do this shit, you know?